President Barack Obama. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Monday, June 10, 2013 9:44 AM
Everyone understands the need for government to keep national security secrets. But the Obama administration continues to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the American people from knowing about their political decision making process.
For example, it was recently revealed that President Obama’s political appointees, including the secretary for Health and Human Services, are using secret government email accounts they say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated Press.
The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses.
The AP asked for the addresses following last year’s disclosures that the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency had used separate email accounts at work. The practice is separate from officials who use personal, non-government email accounts for work, which generally is discouraged — but often happens anyway — due to laws requiring that most federal records be preserved. The secret email accounts complicate an agency’s legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions.
“What happens when that person doesn’t work there anymore? He leaves and someone makes a request (to review emails) in two years,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an open government group. “Who’s going to know to search the other accounts? You would hope that agencies doing this would keep a list of aliases in a desk drawer, but you know that isn’t happening.”
Agencies where the AP so far has identified secret addresses, including the Labor Department and Health and Human Services (HHS), said maintaining non-public email accounts allows senior officials to keep separate their internal messages with agency employees from emails they exchange with the public. They also said public and non-public accounts are always searched in response to official requests and the records are provided as necessary..
Courts have consistently set a high bar for the government to withhold public officials’ records under the federal privacy rules. A federal judge, Marilyn Hall Patel of California, said in August 2010 that “persons who have placed themselves in the public light” — such as through politics or voluntarily participation in the public arena — have a “significantly diminished privacy interest than others.” Her ruling was part of a case in which a journalist sought FBI records, but was denied.
Obama pledged during his first week in office to make government more transparent and open. The nation’s signature open-records law, he said in a memo to his Cabinet, would be “administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
The American people have a right to know why and how the government policies are made, and they are not getting the information that they have a right to from the Obama administration. People need to hold their government officials accountable, from the president own down.
This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.