The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, June 15, 2009

An Oblique Transparency

A Loss of Satellite Data Underscores the Obama Administration’s Hit or Miss Attempts at Being
More Transparent

Most meteors pulled in by the Earth’s gravity burn up when they reach our atmosphere, while a few with enough mass crash into the planet’s surface. However, a significant percentage of meteors suffer an in-between fate and vaporize explosively within the atmosphere. The largest part of these explosions take place over the oceans, over land far from major population centers, and/or during daytime when they are difficult to detect but people do witness some of them.

For about the past fifteen years, U.S. military satellites have detected these explosions. The Pentagon has shared this data with astronomers and other scientists studying impact threats to Earth from space in a highly productive relationship. This all ended a few months ago, however, when the military declared all such observations as classified secrets and not releasable to the public.

Scientists are baffled by the change in policy and frustrated by the loss of a valuable source of data. In addition, exploding meteors commonly fuel panicked speculation ranging from hostile attacks to UFO sightings. The satellite data quickly shot down such rumors. The military has provided no explanation for the data’s sudden classification as secret. Apparently, this is a secret too.

In short, we will no less about whether meteors entering our atmosphere constitute hits or misses than we did previously. This is not the only thing that is hit or miss.

The above story, reported quietly enough by, is disquieting not only in its own right but also as part of a pattern of actions inconsistent with the Obama Administration’s promise for greater transparency in government.

On the first day of his Presidency, Obama signed an executive order, stating, “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in the Freedom Of Information Act and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

There is no question the new Administration has taken many steps in this direction and the general atmosphere in Washington is one of greater openness and access than the former Bush Administration. However, when drilling down past the surface, one finds numerous specific examples of the Obama Administration refusing to release information under the twin justifications of Executive privilege and national security.

Starting with Obama’s pre-election Senate vote to continue authorizing warrant-less wiretapping under the jurisdiction of a FISA quasi-court, such decisions have tarnished Obama’s more laudable efforts in this area. They suggest either his inability to recognize battles worth fighting or a lack of political courage to fight them.

In fairness, Obama entered into office with a very full plate and his Administration has not increased secrecy so much as failed to reverse Bush-era classifications. What is more, these classification decisions are usually highly controversial, reflecting deep paradoxes between national security and civil liberties.

That is, until now.

It is unclear why the military chose to make the formerly available satellite data secret. The primary mission of the satellites is detecting nuclear bomb tests. Perhaps the Pentagon felt ratcheted up testing by North Korea and other nations demanded greater control over this data. Perhaps it was a cost-cutting measure; the time needed to filter harmless naturally occurring meteor explosions from classified observations must incur some expense. Perhaps the military made a simple but draconian decision that no sharing of data reduced risks from partial sharing.

Lacking any explanation, the sudden classification of material so long harmlessly shared makes the military’s decision look not only arbitrary but also pig-headed and stupid. A reversal of the new classification by the Obama Administration appears unlikely. This is most definitely not the direction Obama should be going.

Everyone must understand that no Administration could conduct all of the government’s business in an environment of completely unrestricted transparency. Obama’s job is to wipe away as much of the opaqueness that has built up over the years and allow the light to flow through onto as much as possible. While Obama may deserve an A+ for good intentions on this point, he and his Administration have earned no better than a C+ for actual execution, which has been hit or miss at best to date.

If Obama does not improve in this department, he promise for greater transparency may prove fulfilled by not in any meaningful or satisfying way. Instead of a patchwork quilt of transparency and necessary opaqueness in places, Obama has done little more to date than lighten Bush-era ubiquitous opaqueness to a luminous translucence – shiny but still too hard to see through. Such an oblique transparency will satisfy no one nor should it.

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