We've been here before.
In the early months of the Bush White House, even before 9/11, the administration created an energy task force. Its goal was to create a long-term policy concerning energy, a necessity neglected by presidents despite two oil-scarcity panics in the 1970s and the continued rise of unstable petro-states in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, the panel formed by two refugees from the petroleum industry — George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — had a one-sided approach. Coming to that conclusion wasn't exactly great detective work — the so-called solutions of the panel were drill more, mine more and don't spend much effort, if any, on conservation, something the vice president dismissed at the time as merely a "personal virtue."
The beauty of government panels is that they are required by law to be balanced in terms of viewpoints and open to public inspection. So to confirm or deny those suspicions, watchdogs and journalists requested names of energy task force panelists.
The response from the administration believed by many to have been the most secretive in presidential history was a curt, No.
No names of task force members.
No public scrutiny.
Eventually, identities of task force members leaked out and, gasp, the majority came from the energy sector and very few environmentalists were included.
That no, by the way, was the same response given by the Clinton administration to those seeking openness during 1993's health care task force proceedings.
Last week, the Washington Post reported that the Obama administration is using the same rationale employed by its immediate predecessor in blocking names of visitors to the White House.
"I don't see how you can keep people from knowing who visits the White House and adhere to a policy of openness and transparency," said Anne Weismann, attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the watchdog group suing the administration over the records.
Attorney and blogger Glenn Greenwald (www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald) compiled other examples. Those include:
• Employing the same state-secrets arguments used by Bush to keep trials alleging abuse by the U.S. government from reaching a courtroom.
• Agreeing with the Bush administration in trying to dismiss a lawsuit over missing Bush White House e-mails believed to number in the millions.
• Blocking the court-ordered release of detainee-abuse photographs.
• Not disclosing the location of 44 coal-ash storage sites deemed potential hazards by the EPA.
Speaking during a recent radio interview, Greenwald said Obama's new-found secrecy is "really transformed from isolated disturbing incidents into a clear pattern of obsessive secrecy."
This backsliding by the Obama White House is why open-government laws should be the most nonpartisan issue in town, whether that town is the nation's capitol or Anniston. I.F. Stone, the acclaimed muckracking journalist who died 20 years ago last week, believed the path toward progress lies in arming citizens with knowledge. Of course, Stone famously argued that government devised roadblocks to that enlightenment. He said, "If you want to know about governments, all you have to know is two words, 'governments lie.' "
Under that tenet, no one should be surprised by the new administration's backsliding on openness; it's a pattern we've seen plenty of times before.
Two points are in Obama's favor. His government is more open than the previous eight years; Obama has ordered federal agencies to consider all information open unless it falls under a few exceptions, the exact opposite of Bush policy. The second item in the new White House's favor is that there really are some legitimate state secrets that need guarding.
The trick will be in not overplaying that state-secrets card, and losing the trust of the public.