With intentionally little fanfare late Friday afternoon, the Trump White House announced it would end the Obama administration’s practice of releasing White House visitor logs, outlandishly declaring the practice a “grave” national security threat. As with many developments during this administration’s frenetic first 100 days, it was all too easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, and the swift outrage over this seemingly narrow decision soon subsided in deference to the next headline. To be understood properly, however, last week’s reversal should be seen as but one element in Donald Trump’s broader campaign against transparency.
On the domestic front, the administration has mistakenly adopted the view that transparency — whether in the form of visitor logs or the president’s tax returns — is an unnecessary virtue. When it comes to foreign policy, the Trump White House would have the American people believe transparency and national security are incompatible. As a former CIA analyst and, more recently, as the spokesperson for the National Security Council, I know the latter to be false. In fact, the opposite is the case: transparency can be a powerful strategic tool in U.S. foreign policy.
The new team has escalated America’s involvement in conflicts around the world, in several cases putting brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way with no public debate, and with little public notice. For example, Trump has gone to great lengths to tout his decision to fire 59 cruise missiles into Syria, but his administration has not addressed what is in many ways a more consequential decision: the deployment of hundreds more U.S. service members — including, for the first time, conventional forces — into Syria to fight the Islamic State.
In Yemen, the administration has failed to explain the rationale for a series of aggressive manned and unmanned missions, one of which cost the life of a Navy SEAL in a ground raid several days into Trump’s presidency. When it comes to Somalia, a spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command last week confirmed reports that the administration would be sending “dozens” more troops to the war-torn country, familiar to most Americans because of the Black Hawk Down tragedy. When pressed on the rationale, the spokesperson said that the deployment would be “to better fight al-Shabab,” an Islamist group that has become less focused on anti-Western attacks as it has lost ground to regional forces. The subtext of the spokesperson’s statement was brusquely simple: take our word for it.
And when it comes to North Korea, the most dangerous threat that the United States faces, the administration has adopted a bizarre approach premised at least in part on going out of its way to pronounce that the administration will not comment on developments — as both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have said in recent days. The desire — quixotic as it may be — to take the spotlight off of the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom is understandable, but the failure to communicate strategy can have disastrous implications. The administration recognized this when it reportedly worked overtime to quash news reports, which spread quickly in the information vacuum, that a preemptive strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal was under consideration ahead of a potential nuclear test — an allegation that, true or not, could have spurred North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to be especially reckless.
It goes without saying that the Obama administration took a different approach toward transparency. In some cases, it was the principle of the matter. The decision to send Americans into harm’s way, the most solemn responsibility of any commander-in-chief, was one that merited explanation, primarily for the benefit of the American people. In these instances, it was not low-level spokespeople who announced such deployments; in most cases it was the president himself, speaking directly to the American people, the way it ought to be.
In other areas, strategy was as dominant a rationale. Obama and his team went to great lengths to explain the objectives and tactics in the fight against al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their ilk. In doing so, the administration clearly laid out for allies and potential partners what this campaign would entail, to galvanize action on their own soil, or to request support for U.S.-led efforts — which, in the case of the counter-Islamic State coalition, enabled the Obama administration to forge a 68-member partnership. But the administration also took pains to speak to people — not just governments — and in doing so, made the case time and again that the U.S. war against terrorists was not a fight against any religion, country, or ethnic group. This message was a critical element of the battle for hearts and minds — a mission that in some ways was more effective than the action on the battlefield.
To be sure, transparency is not a fair-weather sport, and the Obama administration did not shirk from this responsibility even in times of setback or tragedy. By releasing data on noncombatants assessed to have been killed in overseas counterterrorism operations, for example, we sought to counteract terrorist propaganda and correct misinformation that had turned public opinion in some countries against the United States, which had made counterterrorism efforts even more difficult. And, in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden disclosures, we found that declassified information — facts about what we did and didn’t do in the context of electronic surveillance, which we also provided to the American people — was the most effective tool in speaking to incensed foreign counterparts. Sunlight, we found, was a disinfectant as well as a salve for frayed relations.
Granted, the Trump administration is in its early days, and it’s far from clear that it has a foreign policy vision or doctrine to speak to at this stage. But as the new team determines precisely what it means by “America first,” there is good reason to hope the White House reverses course and finds the strategic value in transparency with the American people and the world. Far from impairing national security, failing to do so would remove a key weapon from the arsenal.
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