Commentary

Obama Thinks Americans Don’t Need to Know

When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked the existence of a massive spying program siphoning up Americans’ personal phone records earlier this year, President Obama declared: “I welcome this debate and I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”

Shortly thereafter, his administration revoked Snowden’s passport and hit him with Espionage Act charges (filed under seal, naturally).

That’s the thing about the self-styled “most transparent administration in history”: Often you can’t find out what they’re up to until somebody breaks the law to let you know.

Team Obama feels entitled to keep the public in the dark about the most fundamental decisions a self-governing people can make.”

One suspects Obama “welcomes this debate” about as enthusiastically as Anthony Weiner greets the debate over his post-apology “sexting.” But this administration has given us plenty of reasons to debate the health of our democracy.

After all, Team Obama feels entitled to keep the public in the dark about the most fundamental decisions a self-governing people can make, such as what the law is and whether and with whom we go to war.

Let’s review:

The administration claims the right to target Americans suspected of terrorism for death by drone-strike, but it’s resisted revealing the legal memoranda explaining under what circumstances and by what authority.

In 2011, the Obama Justice Department responded to a Freedom of Information Act request with “the very fact of the existence or nonexistence of such documents is itself classified.”

The current debate over the NSA’s call-records dragnet also involves “secret law” — specifically, a classified interpretation of the PATRIOT Act broad enough to make every American’s call data (and perhaps other records) “relevant” to terrorism investigations.

And for several years now, the Obama administration has been building secret drone bases throughout Africa and the Arabian Peninsula in order to wage war against al Qaeda and its “associated forces.” Who are those “associated forces”? Sorry, that’s classified too.

In May, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked the Defense Department for a list. They agreed to provide one — but only if Levin kept it secret. Letting us know who we’re at war with could cause “serious damage to national security,” a Pentagon spokesman explained.

It might be useful for the public to learn how far War on Terrorism mission creep extends so their representatives can debate whether we need perpetual drone war against increasingly marginal groups.

Tough, says DoD: “Because elements that might be considered ‘associated forces’ can build credibility by being listed as such by the United States, we have classified the list.”

Two weeks ago, the House and Senate intelligence committees quietly approved shifting CIA funds to the administration’s covert military aid program for Syrian rebels.

Seventy percent of Americans want to stay out of the Syrian bloodbath, according to Pew’s latest poll, but Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry shored up wobbly legislators by stressing “the need for U.S. ‘skin in the game.’”

Conveniently, they didn’t have to convince too many: “Obama opted to approve the program as a CIA covert action,” the Washington Post explained, in order to avoid “the need for wider congressional approval.”

Secrecy can be pretty convenient for legislators, too. When asked how she voted on Syria, committee chairman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., replied, “it’s classified.”

The day after his first inauguration, Obama proclaimed “a new era of openness in our country.” Yet, in office, he’s driven state secrecy to new levels of absurdity.

You may think that Americans have a right to know who we’re at war with, when the government thinks it can kill them, and whether the executive branch considers the personal data of all Americans “relevant” to terrorism investigations — but this administration begs to differ. As far as it’s concerned, you can’t handle the truth.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.