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Research Report

Transparency in the First 100 Days: A Report Card

Published: April 27, 2009

Government transparency is vital to a free and well-functioning democracy, and it is particularly so in the area of national security policies. History shows that these policies carry a heightened risk of intrusions into individual rights and liberties, making it all the more important that the people are kept informed of their government’s actions. Moreover, because these policies may help protect us from catastrophic attack, it is critical that they we get them right. Policies developed in secret-without the benefit of public scrutiny, debate, and input-are invariably less effective.

To be sure, national security policies implicate some information that properly should be classified and kept secret. The careful classification of information that could endanger our national security if released is a key part of keeping the country safe. But experts agree that far too much information is classified, and too much non-classified information is swept into the ambit of secrecy-to the point that entire policies have been improperly withheld from the public and even from Congress.

The Bush administration was among the most secretive in history. Policies regarding detention, interrogation, rendition, and domestic surveillance were developed behind closed doors by a small, select group of officials. Legal memoranda purporting to justify these policies were kept under lock and key. Congressional inquiries and judicial review were thwarted by overbroad assertions of privilege. The result was a set of policies that violated both the law and our nation’s shared values. They also made us less safe by alienating our allies, providing powerful recruiting tools to our enemies, and undercutting our ability to insist on humane treatment of our own captured troops.

President Obama has pledged to take a different approach. Upon taking office, he heralded a “new era of openness” in which “this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.” His commitment to transparency is heartening-but promises and action are two different things. If we are to protect our national security and our liberties, we must hold President Obama to his commitment: we must periodically take stock of his administration’s performance, acknowledge and commend those actions that enhance government transparency, and insist on a correction of course when transparency is diminished. This report card is an effort to do just that.