Arizona Sen. John McCain is still trying to get answers out of the Obama administration on why several of the president’s political appointees were caught using supposedly secret government email accounts to conduct official business.
“Four years ago you pledged to usher in a new era of government transparency,” McCain wrote in a June 17 letter to Obama. “Since then, however, your administration has habitually circumvented congressional oversight.”
McCain’s letter follows an investigation by The Associated Press that showed several of Obama’s high-level political appointees have been using private emails to do business.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, are just two of the federal officials who maintained private email accounts.
When asked about the account, Sebelius denied it was “secret.”
“There’s a public email and a private email,” she said, adding that anyone could formally request to have access to the information.
Sebelius said she needed a second account to deal with the influx of messages which sometimes reached 28,000. Administration officials defended the use of secondary accounts and said they are needed to keep their primary inboxes from overflowing. But others remain concerned that top-level government officials could hide sensitive information in the accounts that might go unchecked in FOIA requests.
When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden told The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers that the NSA could use its online data-mining system to monitor people without a warrant, several lawmakers spoke out on the practice that to many crossed a privacy line.
President Obama went on PBS and said he encouraged public debate on the balance between privacy and national security but critics say his words, and his administration’s actions just don’t jibe.
During a rare appearance on Capitol Hill in June, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said the two programs disclosed by Snowden — one that gathers U.S. phone records and another designed to track Internet servers – were crucial in the fight against terrorism.
Alexander, also head of U.S. Cyber Command, said the government’s sweeping surveillance programs have helped thwart dozens of terrorist plots, including one on New York City’s subway system. Alexander’s testimony marked the first time an NSA official answered to Congress following the news that the agency was collecting phone records and Internet content.
3Fuzzy on FOIA?
It hasn’t been so sunny in the Obama White House for journalists and members of the public looking for information. Cause of Action – a conservative group that rates the transparency of government – gave the administration a C- for failing to provide requests for documents made under the Freedom of Information Act.
The group found that nearly three quarters of government agencies were unable to respond to their request for information within a 30-day window which is required by law.
A report released earlier this year by The Associated Press found the Obama administration frequently cited national security and internal deliberations as reasons why they could not comply with FOIA requests. The administration fully rejected more than one-third of requests, a slight increase over 2011, including cases when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper.
4What Happened at IRS?
It’s been a rough few months for the Internal Revenue Service. In May, Americans were rocked by revelations that the tax collecting agency had unfairly targeted conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status.
Both parties and President Obama strongly condemned the tax agency’s actions, which led to the ousting of acting IRS Director Steven Miller. When asked if he supported the appointment of a special prosecutor, though, Obama said he thought working with Congress to investigate the case would be sufficient. That didn’t sit well with some lawmakers.
“The unifying themes of this town are an arrogance and view of the machinery of government to be a tool of partisanship,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said. Republicans, who have held a series of hearings, remain concerned that the full story behind the scandal has not yet been told.
A top official implicated, Lois Lerner, recently refused to testify by citing her Fifth Amendment rights, though lawmakers are trying to compel her to return.
In July, acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel told workers the agency would be canceling employee bonuses for managers and is working to cancel bonuses for union workers too.
5Fast and Furious
Republicans, despite extracting reams of documents and hours of testimony out of the Obama administration on the matter, are still fighting for more details about the Operation Fast and Furious debacle.
The gunwalking program was the largest in U.S. history and was run out of an Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives field office in Arizona. The plan was to sell guns to buyers and trace them in the black market as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, with the expectation they would lead federal officials to drug cartel leaders. The plan failed, and congressional inquiries followed.
As part of the fallout, Attorney General Eric Holder became the first Obama administration official to be held in contempt by the House for failing to cooperate with an official inquiry and hand over documents related to the 2009 plan. Republicans continue to fight in court for those documents — which Obama locked down by claiming executive privilege.
When pressed by lawmakers for information on the program, Holder advised the president that releasing documents related to Fast and Furious “would raise substantial separation of powers concerns” and potentially create an imbalance in the relationship” between Congress and the White House.
In July, Justice Department records linked two more deaths, including the fatal shooting of a police chief in Mexico, to the operation. According to Mexican officials, 210 people have either been killed or wounded as a result of Fast and Furious.
6ObamaCare: Behind Closed Doors?
When President Obama was on the campaign trail, he talked a good game about making the government more transparent. Specifically, he said he’d open up negotiations on what would come to be known as the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as ObamaCare, to the public. He was quoted in the press several times saying negotiations would be open to C-SPAN cameras.
“I’m going to have all the negotiations around a big table,” he said during a 2008 campaign event. “We’ll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies – they’ll get a seat at the table, they just won’t be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is we’ll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN.”
That did not happen.
More questions were being raised this week about the law, after the administration announced ahead of the July 4th holiday that it was delaying a key insurance mandate in the law. Lawmakers want to know what led to that decision, and what the fiscal consequences will be.