opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency


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Prime minister of secrets: The short, closed premiership of Theresa May

Theresa May will be remembered as a prime minister who liked to keep things hidden. What’s less often commented on is how her obssession with secrecy explains why everything went so badly wrong….

Some claimed that Theresa May would be different. As home secretary she opened up police stop and search data, extended FOI to the Police Federation, and championed anti-corruption. Unlike Andrea Leadsom, she even published her own tax returns.

Sceptics told another story. In the Home Office, May was much keener on opening up her enemies than herself. She had a tendency to information control and secrecy and liked to work with a closed circle of trusted advisors, letting nothing out. Cameron’s likening of May to a submarine in the Brexit campaign, disappearing when trouble brewed, could be applied to her whole Home Office career. She sought to hide Border Force cuts from parliament in 2016 and, more famously, deflected blame onto officials in 2011 during a career threatening crisis.

It was these habits she took with her to No.10.

See the rest of the piece here on politics.co. uk

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Lifting the Cloud? Donald Trump’s Secrecy Problem (part 2)

              (Cover of Time Magazine 18 May 2017)

Not all secrets are bad. Keeping secrets is part of what makes us who we are. As Sissela Bok pointed out, we want, expect and need some level of confidentiality in all sorts of areas of our life, from job interviews to juries.

Nor is the revealing of a secret necessarily bad for politicians. Revelations are not always damaging or destructive. Some can survive or even thrive after exposes. President Mitterrand shrugged of a series of damaging revelations from his past while Bill Clinton’s impeachment led to greater popularity. The danger for a politicians is when secrecy and exposure either reinforce commonly held (negative) perceptions about you (let’s call it the Cameron or Clinton effect) or makes you do stupid things (let’s call it the Nixon effect).

The Clinton/Cameron effect

In terms of the Clinton/Cameron effect, exposure hurts worst when it confirms what the public already knew rather than reveals something shocking. Bill Clinton was seen as a liar and a womaniser and the Lewinsky affair in 1996 told America probably what it knew (or should have known) already. Similarly Hilary’s email ‘scandal’ reinforced what many felt, namely that the Clinton’s were dishonest. David Cameron’s 2016 tangle over his tax affairs again reinforced the view that he was a super-rich elitist out of touch with the country-a revelation, according to Tim Shipman, that helped swing the Brexit referendum towards Leave.

For Donald Trump the latest wave of revelations about Russia and his tangled attempt to get out of it confirms a great deal that we already know. For example, what does his leaking of classified information tells us? Trump is utterly lacking in caution and possesses a truly astonishing talent for self-defeating actions. There’s an interesting side debate over how a President can simply declassify information at will but a more worrying discussion over how, in doing so, Trump may have now breached his oath of office. Taken together, his actions on the Russia scandal tell us something we know already: that Trump appears, by an objective measure, unfit to be President. And those close to him such as Jared Kuschner, are under deep suspicion. Even the T word now being bandied about.

The Nixon effect

The second effect is that the need to conceal leads to a series of mistakes that deepen the crisis. Think of David Cameron’s strange present tense denials or Clinton’s lying under oath. Even by the standards of an impulsive, inexperienced leader Trump’s response has been extraordinarily self-defeating. His every action, every tweet or comment sinks him deeper. As Nixon’s former Counsel pointed out, Trump’s actions are not those of someone innocent. Trump’s actions have probably taken him far into impeachment territory.

And now?

The question is what happens next. From one point of view the new special counsel could give Trump a respite. Perhaps a formal investigation will slow or stem the leaks that flow continually from, well, everywhere while? Could it be that the formal investigation gives everyone a break from Trump’s uncontrollably impulsive actions? For all the furore it’s unclear what power the counsel will have. More importantly for Trump the findings are secret.

In fact, though the Counsel’s investigation may be secret, its very secrecy makes it even more attractive and interesting. Any findings from the Counsel will not be leak proof and this administration has proved by far the leakiest in history. It is very unlikely any potential leaker or journalist could resist trying to get it. Nor will what the counsel discovers stay safe from Congress as their report can also be subpoenaed.

Gradually small pieces of a complex jigsaw are being gathered together. None of the small parts of the puzzle are wholly incriminating. It’s not even clear what the big secret is or if it even exists. But each is incriminating of something odd or not right. Elsewhere I wrote that Trump’s bizarre cover-up tactics meant there’d be so much smoke that the existence of any fire would become immaterial. Post-Comey it looks as though Trump is purposely starting bigger fires amid an already burning White House.

Now the talk of written evidence or captured conversations means there could be a detailed paper trail, as seen with Comey’s statement (some context here). Will Trump, a president created by virtual celebrity, fake news and ephemeral information, find his fate is sealed by formal documents and record trails? If the evidence doesn’t get him, the allegations and his impulsive responses probably will: Trump the self-incriminating president may well be Clintoned and Nixoned simultaneously.

(See part one here)


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Donald Trump’s Secrecy Problem

Most US presidents that want to shake things up want to open them up too. From Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, those wanting to change the system have championed greater openness, whether by promoting openness in international affairs or rebooting FOI and Open Data. ‘Sunlight’, they would almost always say, ‘is the best disinfectant’. Even LBJ, albeit reluctantly, became the father of the first US FOI law when he sulkily signed the 1966 bill.

This is not to say that they stay open and ‘sunny’. Most radicals go off being open. Some do it quickly, some do it slowly, but go off they almost always do. Woodrow Wilson, for all his promises, introduced the 1917 Espionage Act and hid his severe illness in 1919 from the public for two years (and his wife governed, giving the US a secret female president between 1919-1921). For all his promises, Obama also clamped down hard on leakers. As Sissela Bok put it:

‘How many leaders have come into office determined to work for more open government, only to end by fretting over leaks, seeking new ways to classify documents and questioning the loyalty of outspoken subordinates?’ (Bok 1986, 177).

Donald Trump seems to have skipped the ‘open government’ phase entirely and gone straight to the fretting. Greater transparency is not part of his big 100 day plans. Trump isn’t even transparent about the smaller things presidents are generally open about. In the US candidates and office holders regularly publish their tax returns as a matter of course. Details of Obama’s falling income were on the White House website and you can see Reagan’s, Nixon’s, Truman’s and some of FDR’s on the great Tax History project site. Hillary Clinton’s returns are here and Bernie Sanders’ (possibly incomplete) ones here. Presidents also release medical records. Except, of course, Donald Trump, who released a rather brief statement that his doctor later confessed to have written ‘in a few minutes’.

All these little Trumpian secrets seem rather tame in comparison with ‘Russiagate’ that we see unfolding before our eyes (see this great piece for a detailed analysis and these 7 charts). This week the Senate hearings on Russian interference in the US election began in earnest while Mike Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, looks to go public. Though it isn’t clear what sort of scandal it is or where it may go, it is clear that all this secrecy is damaging the White House. Secrets almost always do three things: create suspicion, leaks and pressure to be open.

Problem one is that secrets makes people suspicious. Trump’s non-release of tax returns, for example, appears odder and odder – even Wikileaks is interested in it. As John Dean said, putting pressure on the FBI is not the behaviour of innocent people. And he should know: he was White House counsel for Richard Nixon 1970 until 1973.

This suspicion was encapsulated in Jeff Sessions’ cover up and non-answers to Congress. If, as defenders asserted after, it was normal to meet the Russian ambassador, why not say it? Why hide it? As Chris Hayes put it ‘there’s this pattern…in which there’s this kind of bizarre disassembling about the basic facts of the matter…do you understand why that reads to people as fishy?’ As the Onion put it, ‘Heartbroken Russian Ambassador Thought Special Meetings with Jeff Sessions Were Very Memorable’.

Problem two is that strident denial and clamping down kickstarts all sorts of informal openness. ‘The ship of state’, as the saying goes, ‘is the only known vessel that leaks from the top’. And Trump’s White House is extraordinarily and spectacularly leaky, as a result of factions, frustration and fear (not because of Trump’s phone). Even the administration’s attempts to clamp down on leaks leak.

Problem three is that secrecy attracts attention and motivates others to force you to be open. Trump’s supposed smokescreens and distractions via Twitter are spectacularly counterproductive. There are currently no less than three Congressional investigations ongoing (Senate intelligence, House intelligence and House oversight) all of whom will search, call witnesses and dig. Even Republicans in Congress, who have accepted his racism, sexism and mocking of the disabled, are beginning to want to know more. There’s also a joint intelligence services probe, run by many of the organisations Trump has outright insulted. On 20 March, the heads of the FBI and CIA, in Congressional hearings, contested Trumps’ wiretapping claims: as one observer put it ‘two months after taking office, Trump has implicitly been branded a fantasist by the heads of America’s largest law enforcement agency and its largest intelligence agency’. These investigations

…guarantee that the Russia cloud will hang over the Trump administration at least until the various investigations are over [this] could take months and possibly years to wrap up. All the while, speculation is likely to be fuelled by more leaks, and more embarrassing testimonies.

The media are pursuing Russia and, in a further echo of Watergate, are keeping the topic on the front pages. Meanwhile a whole host of FOI requests ask about Trump’s conflicts of interest with more than 3000 followers of this Trump FOI Slack channel and at least 184 requests on the requesting site muck rock (perhaps someone should invent a bot like this one).

As I wrote in relation to Theresa May, some politicians are born to be open, some achieve openness by accident and some have openness thrust upon them. The combination of suspicion, leaking and pressure is shining a light on the new president. Russia is now coming to dominate everything Trump does and undermine everything else. Soon there will be an attempt to answer the most dangerous question in politics – why? There may never be a smoking gun, but the glimpses and hints at a truth, and the drip of revelations, are likely to be deep, dangerous and damaging. Even in the very unlikely event there is no gun, just smoke, remember it’s the smoke that normally kills. Trump will regret he wasn’t more open from the start.

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College. His new book The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power is published by Manchester University Press. You can read chapter 1 here.