Obama gets mixed reviews on government 'openness'
Some advocates say his policies on federal whistleblowers are too much like Bush’s.
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In a signing statement, which is used to signal a president’s disagreement with a bill he signs, Obama stated that “I do not interpret this provision to detract from my authority to direct the heads of executive departments to supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications [which are] unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.”Skip to next paragraph
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That prompted Senator Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa to accuse the administration of breaking its campaign pledge to protect whistle-blowers. It also raised concern among many transparency advocates like Tod Devine, of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, who contend that it “hints at restoring the Bush secrecy policies.”
But Mr. Devine says the problem with the signing statement is that it’s so vague and broadly worded that it can be interpreted in two ways: As a simple restating of the president’s authority or as an outright gag rule on federal employees who speak to Congress without their boss’ permission.
“It could be interpreted at either end of the transparency perspective because it was so vague and terse,” says Devine.
The White House counters that the congressional language itself was vague and terse, which necessitated the signing statement.
“Read literally, it would prevent the Executive Branch from taking steps to prevent or address employee communications with Congress even where such communications are unlawful or ... legitimately classified,” White House spokesman Thomas Vietor wrote in an e-mail. “The president’s signing statement does not purport to control or limit legitimate whistle-blowing activities. Nor is it intended to break new ground on this issue.”
Transparency advocates contend that could be further clarified if the administration would reiterate the Obama campaign’s support for the Whistleblower Protection Act.
But despite their urging, they haven’t been able to get a direct answer, advocates contend. “It’s been like talking to a wall,” says Devine.
Mr. Vietor at the White House responded that he didn’t have “any additional [information] on this.”
Still, many transparency advocates say they’re optimistic about the administration. One reason is that Obama has just appointed Elaine Kaplan as the new counsel of the Office of Personnel Management. During the Clinton Administration she was essentially in charge of protecting whistle-blowers, and she won kudos for her work.