Burying the evidence

Obama strays from campaign ideals with decreasing transparency.

By Jasmine Heiss

I cried on November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president. Like so many other people, I was swept up in the giddy enthusiasm of his campaign: the bold graphics, the rousing speeches, and the iconic words “hope” and “change.” Now, just over a year later, my honeymoon period with Obama has come to an end. Like many Americans, my heady enthusiasm has been replaced with a sort of cynical optimism—we still fervently hope things can get better, but only with the caveat “we can only expect so much.” Even the words “hope” and “change,” which once so skillfully captured our imaginations, seem to mean so much that they don’t mean anything at all.

With Obama’s recent decision to pass a law preempting the release of photographs from Guantanamo Bay, however, my disenchantment has soured to disgust. The Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act of 2009, which our president signed last month, grants Defense Secretary Robert Gates the power to duck the Freedom of Information Act and withhold photographs depicting detainee abuse. The justification for such an action? Well, in order to withhold the photographs, Blake must certify that “public disclosure of these photographs would endanger citizens of the United States, members of the United States Armed Forces, or employees of the United States Government deployed outside the United States.” Given that the mere existence of Guantanamo—not to mention the reprehensible practice of indefinite detention—incites enough anti-American sentiment to endanger all three of those groups, that premise seems shaky at best.

Furthermore, it seems patently obvious that the restriction of information from the American public does far more in the way of endangering than protecting. To see the corrosive effects of the suppression of such evidence, one need only look at history—during Argentina’s dirty war, for example, the government’s concealment of its own wrongdoing was so successful that countless civilians disappeared, were tortured, and were killed without the knowledge (or, at the very least, acknowledgement) of vast sectors of society. And until recently, it seemed as if Obama was solidly on the same page regarding the indispensability of government transparency. On his first day in office, he issued a number of executive orders meant to combat the secrecy of the Bush administration, proclaiming to the American public that such measures “mark[ed] the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days and weeks, months and years to come.”

That may have been true. It seems, however, that regardless of auspicious beginnings, the Obama administration has wound up in very familiar territoryterritory that reeks of the Bush era. Ironically, this unfortunate change of direction has also pitted our nation’s first black president against the ACLU, which is fighting the Protection Act tooth and nail. Ultimately, however, it is our voices that are crucial in bringing Obama back onto the right track. Because the youth voted, we became a substantial part of the force that carried Obama into power. Furthermore, as a trip to the 55th St. Walgreens will attest, Hyde Park is the veritable heartland of our Obama nation. As both an age group and a community, we need to be as instrumental in bringing Obama back on track as we were in putting him in power, and to do so we need to make our voices heard. Because the truth is, at the end of the day, I want to believe in hope and change with the same enthusiastic idealism that I felt just over a year ago.

— Jasmine Heiss is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Anthropology and Visual Arts.