WASHINGTON, February 28 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama came into office vowing that transparency would be a “touchstone” of his administration, but the White House has come under fire in recent weeks amid accusations of strong-arming, manipulating and shutting out the media.
Renowned US journalist Bob Woodward, whose reporting in the Watergate scandal helped bring down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974, accused senior Obama economic aide Gene Sperling of trying to bully him by yelling and telling him he would “regret” suggesting in print that Obama is being duplicitous in his dealings with Republican lawmakers on contentious budget talks.
“I think if Obama himself saw the way they’re dealing with some of this, he would say, ‘Whoa, we don’t tell any reporter you’re going to regret challenging us,’” Politico, which broke the story Wednesday evening, quoted Woodward as saying.
Politico released Sperling’s email to Woodward on Thursday, and White House spokesman Jay Carney noted the cordial and conciliatory tone the White House official took with the legendary reporter in the exchange, calling Sperling “incredibly respectful” to Woodward.
It is impossible to conclude from the emails that Sperling was “threatening anybody,” Carney told reporters Thursday.
“I have enormous respect for the work Bob Woodward is famous for,” Carney said. “ ... But we had a factual disagreement which we stand by.”
The kerfuffle comes on the heels of a spate of criticism aimed at the Obama administration, including accusations that the White House is increasingly limiting reporters’ access to important matters of state.
“The way the president’s availability to the press has shrunk in the last two years is a disgrace,” veteran White House reporter Ann Compton of ABC News told Politico last week. “The president’s day-to-day policy development—on immigration, on guns—is almost totally opaque to the reporters trying to do a responsible job of covering it.”
In one incident that peeved some members of the White House press corps, reporters and photographers were not given access to the president during a weekend vacation in Florida mid-February, which included a round of golf with Tiger Woods.
Woods is widely seen as the greatest golfer in history but had a high-profile fall from public grace in a 2010 sex scandal.
Carney, a former reporter for the venerable US magazine Time, told a news briefing Thursday that the “naturally adversarial relationship” between reporters and the White House means it is appropriate for the press to hold “our feet to the fire.”
“And we get out there and try to explain the president’s position and articulate why we think his positions are the correct positions,” Carney said.
Carney last week defended Obama’s assertion that he leads the “most transparent administration in history,” saying Obama has given 35 solo news conferences during his time in office, compared to 19 during the two terms of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
He added that Obama has given 591 interviews since taking office, 104 of which have been given to major television networks.
Obama has drawn criticism from both the liberal and conservative ends of the US political spectrum over the degree of his administration’s transparency, particularly on national security issues.
Republican officials and conservative media outlets have repeatedly accused the White House of stonewalling inquiries into the deadly September 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left the US ambassador to the country and three other Americans dead.
Liberal critics say Obama is not living up to his promises to bring transparency to the White House on issues such as the targeted killing of suspected terrorists—including US citizens—without due process.
The Obama administration “has consistently invoked the state secrets doctrine to block judicial scrutiny of Bush-era abuses and national security practices,” Adam Serwer, a reporter for the liberal magazine Mother Jones, wrote earlier this month.
“It has resisted legal efforts by civil libertarian groups to shed light on Obama administration policies such as targeted killing, calling them ‘secret’ even when they are public knowledge,” Serwer added.
Anne Weismann, an attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told RIA Novosti on Thursday that the Obama administration has been far more forthcoming than the Bush administration, which she described as “the high-water mark” when it came to “White House secrecy.”
The Obama administration has put “very good policy in place” when it comes to areas like the Freedom of Information Act, but implementation—particularly at the US Department of Justice in issues related to the secrecy of legal memoranda—has been less than stellar, Weismann said.
“It definitely has not lived up to the promise,” she said.
Transparency issues could arise in the battered relations between the United States and Russia in the coming weeks, when the White House releases the list of Russian officials it deems complicit in human rights abuses under the contentious Magnitsky Act legislation Obama signed into law on Dec. 14, 2012.
The law requires the White House to submit this list of officials, who are subject to US asset freezes and visa bans, to Congress no later than 120 days after the legislation was enacted.
The names are to be released to the public, though the president can classify names if he “determines that it is vital for the national security interests of the United States to do so,” according to the law.