The president was pressed on transparency and drones in a Google+ hangout that doubled as a demonstration of excellent citizen journalism. A video blogger named Kira Davis, a stay-at-home mom in Orange County, California, impressed me Thursday in a Google+ interview with President Obama by respectfully posing a tougher question than award-winning broadcaster Steve Kroft has ever managed on 60 Minutes.
"You ran on a platform of really trying to become one of the most transparent administrations in American history," she said. "However, with recent leaked guidelines regarding drone strikes on American citizens and Benghazi and closed door hearings on the budget and deficit, it just feels a lot less transparent than I think we all hoped it would be. How has the reality of the presidency changed that promise? And what can we do moving forward to kind of get back to that promise?" (It's at the 35 minute mark.)
As Obama would point out, the controversy on Benghazi is a poor example to illustrate her point, but that aside, the question was excellent, and elicited a noteworthy answer from the president. He began by defending his administration:
On a whole bunch of fronts we've kept that promise. This is the most transparent administration in history. And I can document how that is the case. Everything from every visitor that comes into the White House is now part of the public record. That's something that we changed. Just about every law that we pass, every rule that we implement, we put on line for everybody.
Those words were meant to address matters apart from the realm of national security. As Politifact notes, the reality is that even on non-national security matters, his record has been mixed. "He broke a promise to televise meetings about health care on C-SPAN, he failed to keep his 'sunlight before signing' pledge to wait five days before signing legislation and he hasn't created a 'contracts and influence' database to disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying."
What interests me most is the realm of national security, which Obama addressed next. It's important to note how much he conceded. "There are a handful of issues, mostly around national security, where people have legitimate questions, where there's still concern about whether we have all the information we need," he said. "When it comes to things like how we conduct counterterrorism, there are legitimate questions there, and we should have that debate*."
What particular questions are legitimately asked but not yet answered by his White House? He doesn't say. The White House press corps should hound him to clarify. I'll help with the language. Mr. President, you implied in your Google+ chat that there are legitimate questions about how counterterrorism is conducted that you haven't answered with all the information Americans need. Could you give me 3 specific questions you think Americans ought to have answered?
Obama added that "what I tried to do coming into office was to create a legal and a policy framework that respected our traditions and our rule of law. But some of these programs are still classified, which meant that we might've shared them, for instance, with the Congressional intelligence office, but they're not on the front page of the papers or on the Web."
This is disingenuous. First of all, Obama is empowered to declassify anything that he likes. More to the point, even U.S. Senators with direct oversight responsibility have complained about the White House's failure to answer multiple, specific information requests, as the John Brennan hearings illustrated.
The problem isn't just that this information isn't on the front page of the NY Times. For example, Sen. Wyden isn't even permitted to know in how many countries America is killing people!
Another participant in the Google+ chat, video blogger Lee Doren, interjected with another good example of information the Obama Administration won't even tell Congress. "A lot of people are very concerned that your administration now believes it's legal to have drone strikes on American citizens, and whether or not that's specifically allowed with citizens within the United States," he said. "And if that's not true, what will you do to create a legal framework to make American citizens within the U.S. know that drone strikes cannot be used against American citizens?"
Were it true, Obama could've answered, "I don't think I have the power to order a drone strike on American citizens when they're on U.S. soil." In fact, he conspicuously didn't offer that assurance. "Well first of all, there has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil," he began, leaving unaddressed the question of whether there could be in the future.
"We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States," he continued. "The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States, in part because our capacity to capture a terrorist in the United States are very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan."
It sounds to me like Obama believes he would be empowered to target an American on U.S. soil if capturing him proved "infeasible," a term he hasn't ever defined, but which likely means "infeasible without undue risk to American lives."
Then he made another concession:What I think is absolutely true is that it is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we're doing the right thing. Do you hear that, Obama supporters and neo-cons? The man himself says that, even in the realm of counterterrorism, we shouldn't take his word for it. "I am the head of the executive branch. And what we've done so far is to try to work with Congress on oversight issues," he continued. "But part of what I'm going to have to work with Congress on is to make sure that whatever it is that we're providing Congress, that we have mechanisms to also make sure that the public understands what's going on, what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are, and that's something I take very seriously."
Once again, this is phrased as if Obama has already succeeded in satisfying Congress, and just needs to help Americans understand what they're seeing. The multiple U.S. Senators, Democrat and Republican, with specific unanswered questions would beg to differ.
"I am not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants or whatever she wants whenever they want just under the guise of counterterrorism. There have to be legal checks and balances on it," he concluded.
Hence the last assignment for the White House press corps: What's his notion of the necessary checks and balances? Kroft in particular can redeem himself in my eyes by getting on the record answers.
*If you've already conceded that some of the questions are legitimate, why is a debate required before you answer them? What is being debated?