This column, a regular feature, was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. Obama’s unaccountable briefers:
Here’s a key paragraph in Saturday’s New York Times report explaining the Obama administration’s decision to delay yet again a decision on the Keystone pipeline:
‘The Nebraska Supreme Court decision could lead to changes in the pipeline route, and it’s important to have that information and better understand that route, because it could have implications for environmental, socioeconomic and cultural impacts of the pipeline,’ a State Department official said Friday in a conference call with reporters that was conducted on the condition that the official not be named.
Why did this official have to remain anonymous? Was he or she providing a national security leak? Was he or she blowing the whistle on some government wrongdoing?
Hardly. In this case the anonymous briefer was offering up a comically far-fetched excuse for kicking the pipeline decision down the road until after the 2014 elections.
Even assuming a state court’s decision on the routing of part of the pipeline could have “environmental, socioeconomic” or even “cultural” impacts — which is a stretch — the State Department could have made its own decision contingent on the state court not throwing any such unlikely curve balls. So you can’t blame the briefer for not wanting his or her name attached to this gibberish, or the Obama administration for not wanting a name and a face out there for follow-up questions.
But you can blame the Obama administration — and the press — for engaging in this exercise in unaccountable government.
There’s a bigger story here that this paragraph illustrates. In my own reporting about healthcare, as well as in my daily reading of news from the White House, I’ve observed a routine insistence by the Obama administration that almost every explanation of its decisions or policies is done in briefings in which officials are not to be quoted by name — and a routine acquiescence by the press to these ground rules. Even notices of briefings or changes in scheduled events are typically sent on a not-for-attribution or even off-the-record basis.
How come? And how come the press accepts it?
One explanation I’ve gotten from one White House aide — who, yes, insisted on anonymity — is that “the president is the story, not any of us.” Really? Who decided that? Does President Barack Obama agree with the selling of a fairy tale of one-person government? If that were true, then why not have the president out there, by name, trying to sell this explanation for the delay of the pipeline decision?
Obviously, it’s instead a way to dodge accountability for decisions or explanations that don’t pan out or that, as in the case of the pipeline decision delay, are laughable in the first place.
It’s time for a story about this governance by anonymity. Am I correct that the unaccountability disease has gotten worse under Obama than previous presidents? What’s the rationale for it? Why does the press play ball?
What would happen if, for example, the State Department press corps had simply refused to participate in that pipeline briefing unless it could name the person who pitched that absurd rationale for the delay and could then keep peppering him or her with follow-ups?
2. Bribery in the pipeline fight?
Before we leave the subject of the new delay in the Keystone decision, consider this additional paragraph in the Times story:But approving the pipeline before the election could staunch the flow of money from liberal donors and fund-raisers who oppose the project, like Tom Steyer, a California billionaire. Mr. Steyer, who has personally asked Mr. Obama to reject the pipeline, is positioned to play a major role in influencing the midterms: He has pledged to spend $100 million to support candidates who back strong policies to fight climate change.
Try this exercise. Substitute the conservative Koch brothers for Steyer, the liberal who wants to block the pipeline because he believes it will accelerate global warming. And change the text to read that Charles and David Koch have bluntly promised House and Senate Republicans $100 million if they will do everything they can, including threatening a new government shutdown, to get the pipeline approved. But if they don’t do everything the Koch brothers think is necessary, they won’t get the money.