WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney released two years of his federal tax returns under pressure from Newt Gingrich, who made his 2010 tax filings public ahead of his GOP rival. Romney, in turn, successfully pressed Gingrich to disclose contracts between his consulting firm and housing giant Freddie Mac.
Don't confuse the sudden surge of transparency by the leading Republican presidential candidates with a commitment to open up the inner workings of the federal government — or their campaigns. In their hands, transparency has been a club to beat an opponent with until he produces information he'd rather keep private. It's been a political weapon in an increasingly ugly campaign that is heading toward a crucial primary in Florida on Tuesday.
"Transparency and accountability are about a lot more than a candidate releasing personal information when his or her back is against the wall," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of public interest groups. "An executive who cares about transparency makes it clear he or she understands the public has a right to know what its government is doing."
Openness advocates said they don't know what changes, if any, Romney and Gingrich might propose to the Freedom of Information Act, the nation's preeminent open records law, or other transparency initiatives advocated by the Obama administration. But the signals from the GOP's fractious campaign are worrisome, they say, especially at a time when there is so much pressure to slash federal budgets.
Prior to releasing his tax returns, Gingrich said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "the country deserves accountability, and they deserve transparency" as he pressed Romney to do the same. On his campaign website, Gingrich lists accountability and transparency as cornerstones of his plan to overhaul the country's education system. He also proposed to reform the Federal Reserve "to promote transparency."
Romney has pushed Gingrich to disclose more about work he was paid to do after leaving Congress, warning voters could see "an October surprise a day" about the former House speaker.
But efforts by Romney and his staff to keep records from his term as Massachusetts governor from becoming public are inconsistent with his stated commitment to openness. The Associated Press reported in November that Romney's personal gubernatorial records — including emails exchanged with aides, private calendars and other materials — were unaccounted for when staff began gathering information to be housed in the state's archives.
Top Romney aides also were permitted to buy and remove their state-issued computer hard drives. Romney said he followed the law. His campaign aides said their actions were based on a 1997 Massachusetts court ruling that the records of all governors are private.
Yet governors, agency heads and even presidents are free to use their discretion to release records unless there is a specific prohibition against making the information public.
President Barack Obama's pledge to create the most transparent administration in American history remains an unfulfilled promise.
Among Obama's first and most significant moves was to reverse the Bush administration's policy of using any legitimate legal basis to defend withholding records from the public. Obama promised "an unprecedented level of openness in government" and ordered new Freedom of Information Act guidelines to be written with a "presumption in favor of disclosure."
But his administration has struggled to meet the high expectations and lofty rhetoric, especially when national security records are involved. Still, Obama raised the profile of an issue the Bush White House treated with disdain.
The president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, Thomas Fitton, sent a survey to all the presidential candidates, including Obama, in early December with questions about government transparency and accountability and other issues. Only the Gingrich campaign responded. It said their candidate would not participate in the questionnaire.
"Politicians of all stripes are hesitant to make public information that is controversial," Fitton said. "Democratic administrations say they are going to give you everything and then withhold information. Republican administrations are more philosophically opposed to transparency laws and tell you up front they are not going to give you anything. I don't know what's worse: hypocrisy or unapologetic secrecy."
Under Fitton, Judicial Watch has been sharply critical of the Obama administration's claims that its policies have made government more open. In August, a federal judge ruled in Judicial Watch's favor after the group challenged the Secret Service's position that White House visitor logs are presidential records and therefore exempt from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.
But Fitton expects to fight the same battles if former Bush administration officials return to positions in the White House and Justice Department under a Romney or Gingrich administration. "They'll continue these hard core legal positions in court against transparency," he said.
Since the September 2001 terror attacks, the government has disclosed less information about its own actions while collecting more personal information about ordinary U.S. citizens, said Liza Goitein, director of the Liberty and National Security Project at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
"Unfortunately, this trend has continued under President Obama, and there is little reason to think it would abate under a Romney or Gingrich administration," Goitein said.
Just as the Bush administration did, the Obama White House has used the state secrets privilege to turn aside lawsuits seeking accountability for warrantless wiretapping and torture, she said. It has also kept from public view photographs of detainee abuse and a legal opinion justifying the extrajudicial execution of U.S. citizens. And the Obama administration has prosecuted more national security whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, Goitein said.
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Both Gingrich and Romney advocate using the military, and not the criminal justice system, to deal with suspected terrorists, she said.
"More generally, both candidates are portraying themselves as being relentlessly tough on terrorism, and there's a stubborn myth out there that toughness and transparency are incompatible," Goitein said. "I wouldn't hold out high hopes for transparency in either a Romney or a Gingrich administration."