More than six years after President Obama took office promising the most transparent administration in history, we have now arrived at the moment when the State Department appoints a “Transparency Coordinator.”
Not a moment too soon, one might suppose. Perhaps the Transparency Coordinator’s first assignment should be to bring more transparency to her own job description. News of the post came by way of a press release from Secretary of State John Kerry, in which Kerry noted a dramatic increase in requests for information from State, but mentioned not a word about the over-the-top administration secrecy that has provoked so many of these requests. Kerry said he was “pleased to announce the appointment of Ambassador Janice Jacobs as the State Department’s Transparency Coordinator, charged with improving document preservation and transparency systems.”
What might that mean in practice? Go figure. Like Obama in 2009, Kerry went on for a couple of paragraphs about “our commitment to transparency” and how he wants the Department to “lead on these issues,” and “set and achieve a new standard,” and “harness new technological tools,” and “think boldly and creatively” and “fundamentally improve our ability to respond to requests for our records.”
How all that committing and leading and thinking and improving might translate in the nitty-gritty real world into State divulging a single additional scrap of information to which Congress or the public is entitled, well, that remains… nontransparent.
Since Kerry offered not a word of explanation for the rising number of requests for information from State, let us fill in a few blanks.
This appointment of a Transparency Coordinator is surfing the riptide of the Hillary Clinton email saga, in which Obama’s 2009 promise of transparency gave way immediately to the use of a private email server by Obama’s first-term secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. That led to the current fog of deleted emails, redacted emails, questions about what was wiped (“with a cloth or something?”) and the debate over what was classified and how and when. There’s the awkward question of what Clinton unilaterally scrapped under the heading of yoga routines, and there’s the alarming question of whether this email system was more transparent to the Russians, Chinese and other adept hackers than to Congress or the American public.
Add to that the murk of the Iran nuclear deal. This spring Obama signed into law a promise to share with Congress all relevant documents, but at the Vienna bargaining table State Department negotiators agreed to allow secret side agreements between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Thus did we see the State Department’s chief negotiator, Wendy Sherman, testifying last month that the administration could not share documents which (conveniently enough) it did not have (never mind if the IAEA in its secret arrangements relies on Iran to inspect itself).
Add to that a general climate of administration secrecy so pervasive — and evasive — that it inspired a Washington Post article last year on “A reporter’s guide to dealing with the White House,” in which columnist Al Kamen wrote: “judging from the frequent complaints we hear, the lack of transparency is worse than ever.” Speculating that “maybe there’s an administration-wide crib sheet?” Kamen collected from his colleagues more than a dozen of the most “truly unhelpful responses that have become the standard repertory at many agencies.” Among them, the staple: “I have nothing for you on that.” And everyone’s favorite (I can vouch that he was not making this up): “Off the record, no comment.”
For anyone familiar with the ways of bureaucracy in general, the title of Transparency Coordinator, all by itself, ought to arouse primal fear. Assigning bureaucrats to coordinate the disclosures of other bureaucrats does not as a rule result in greater transparency. While we might hope for the best, such a setup lends itself more readily to orchestrating than to thwarting cover-ups. Over the centuries, such sages as Jonathan Swift, Franz Kafka and George Orwell have warned us that when government sets up a Ministry of Truth — or, in this season, a Transparency Coordinator — we should beware the opposite.