Last Friday, White House officials made at least two public references to Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs). PPD 1 was cited in a new executive order on computer security and PPD 8 was cited in a White House blog posting on disaster preparedness. Each Directive is a significant expression of national policy. Neither one is classified. And yet neither of them — nor any other Obama Presidential Policy Directive — can be found on the White House website.
The White House decision not to make these documents available is a stark reminder of the incoherence of the Obama Administration’s transparency policy, and its inconsistent implementation.
“Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset,” President Obama wrote in his January 21, 2009 memo on transparency and open government. “My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.”
But as the withholding of the presidential directives illustrates, not even the Obama White House itself complies with this policy, and so its impact in the farther reaches of the executive branch has been muted. Those who seek access to Presidential Policy Directives must look elsewhere.
“I think it’s general policy that we can release a detailed summary of [PPDs],” said deputy national security adviser Michael Froman at a September 22, 2010 White House press briefing, “but as I understand the policy, [it is] not to release the PPDs themselves.”
In accordance with this PPD non-disclosure policy, the Department of State last month denied a FOIA request from Gavin Baker of OMB Watch for a copy of PPD 6 on global development policy. The document was exempt from release, the State Department said, based on “the Presidential communication privilege.”
On the other hand, the full text of PPD 8 on national preparedness has been made available online by the Department of Homeland Security, despite the White House refusal to release it directly and notwithstanding any “Presidential communication privilege.”
Where secrecy has prevailed, unauthorized disclosures have also helped to fill the void in public access. PPD 1 on the Organization of the National Security Council System was obtained from a confidential source shortly after its issuance in February 2009. (The National Security Staff did release a copy of the directive after it was made available online.) PPD 2 on Implementation of the National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats was obtained by the website Public Intelligence through an inadvertent disclosure on a server for U.S. military personnel.
Although no Presidential Policy Directives have been published on the White House website, one Obama Presidential Study Directive — PSD 10 on preventing mass atrocities — was in fact published by the White House last August. This otherwise unremarkable step tends to confirm that there is no serious question of principle or privilege at stake in the decision to publish such directives. Instead, the Obama Administration’s broader anti-transparency policy on presidential directives appears to be driven by an old-fashioned imperative of secrecy for its own sake.