Depending on your perspective, this has been either a very good or a terrible week for transparency in government.
It was a good week in the sense that two irate judges have threatened the Obama administration over its lack of commitment to this cornerstone of public trust. It was a bad week because it showed America is still afflicted with a rigorously opaque presidential administration, despite the president's many promises of transparency.
Judge Emmet Sullivan excoriated the IRS on Wednesday, threatening to hold its attorneys and its commissioner, John Koskinen, in contempt of court. Sullivan is overseeing the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the group Judicial Watch to obtain the emails of Lois Lerner in connection with the agency's ideological targeting scandal.
Sullivan has gradually become fed up with the agency's persistent sandbagging in this case, its failure to preserve evidence, and halfhearted efforts to find documents demanded by legal requests. This week, his outrage boiled over due to the failure of the IRS and the Justice Department attorneys representing it to comply with his a July 1 court order to begin releasing, weekly, the 1,800 newly discovered Lois Lerner emails. He called the government's dilatory behavior "indefensible, ridiculous, and absurd" and asked "why shouldn't the Court hold the Commissioner of the IRS in contempt?" He threatened to "haul" Koskinen into the courtroom if the stonewalling continued.
The same day, in another federal courtroom, Judge Richard Leon was experiencing a similar frustration, but with President Obama's State Department. State has been sued by the Associated Press to fulfill a number of Freedom of Information Act requests as much as five years old, pertaining to former Secretary Hillary Clinton and her top aides.
Judge Leon was thoroughly unsatisfied with the department's excuses for taking so long, and he remarked that the State Department's proposed plan to begin producing documents by December was not "anywhere near aggressive enough." Even "the least ambitious bureaucrat," he added, would take only a couple of days to fulfill one of the requests for 68 pages of documents.
The Obama era has been a bad one for the principle of government transparency and freedom of information. His political opposition is not alone in pointing this out. Nor have his transgressions been merely against the public, but against Congress as well. His political appointees have even interfered in the FOIA process, using journalists' requests to keep tabs and report up the chain when potentially damaging stories were being written.
But although this White House is unlikely to change its ways in its last few months, voters need to think about the future. One of the candidates likely to be presented to them is Clinton. She deliberately withheld her own emails from the public for years, using a private server, and turned them over only long after leaving office. When she did turn them over, she did it on paper, to make it as difficult as possible for the government and public to read them, and so metadata associated with them would be destroyed.
A Clinton presidency holds out no for greater transparency in the way Washington conducts its business. The Republican field must therefore offer the public a true alternative. When the GOP candidates debate, we hope they not only pay lip service to transparency but lay out concrete ideas about how they would improve it and regain citizens' trust.