Obama Administration Hiding Details of Presidential Policy Directives

Monday, July 15, 2013

Despite promising the most transparent administration in history, the Obama White House has actually become more secretive than that of George W. Bush, at least in the area of Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs). Of the more than twenty PPDs issued since Barack Obama took office, only a few have been officially released to the public on the White House website.


A PPD, while neither a law nor a regulation, is a statement by the President directed to the Executive Branch of the federal government that implements or interprets a federal statute, a constitutional provision, or a treaty. As such, a PPD becomes part of the particular legal framework that grows up around any statute or program. Keeping it secret means that the public is prevented from fully understanding the laws that govern them.


Several of the Obama directives replaced directives issued by the George W. Bush Administration, but while many of the Bush directives were publicly available, their successor directives from President Obama are not.


Obama’s unreleased PPD 18 on Maritime Security, for example, replaced Bush’s NSPD 41, which was posted on the Bush White House website. Keeping new policy guidance secret, especially in an area like maritime security where literally thousands of Americans are directly concerned, can only sow confusion among the public, many of whom may erroneously believe that the obsolete guidance is still in effect.


Similarly, Obama PPD 17 on Countering Improvised Explosive Devices, which has been kept secret, replaced Bush’s HSPD 19, which was made public.


Christian Beckner of Homeland Security Watch theorizes that “a primary cause” of Obama’s greater secrecy when it comes to PPDs is “the integration of the Homeland Security Council (HSC) into the National Security Council (NSC) in 2009,” with the secretive tendencies of the latter predominating on issues that relate to national security.


While that sort of institutional explanation is a good start, it does not explain the White House’s refusal to release PPD 6 on Global Development to the non-profit Center for Effective Government. Although PPD 6 is unclassified, the Administration has claimed privilege in refusing to release it.


Perhaps, in light of the thousands of secret cases decided by the FISA Court over the past 35 years, the White House has simply become accustomed to the idea of secret law, despite the fact that such a thing is inimical to democracy.


Nevertheless, at least one highly classified Obama PPD has been posted online for public viewing. Presidential Policy Directive 20 on U.S. Cyber Operations Policy was apparently leaked by Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian newspaper on June 7. There may even be more to come.  

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Presidential Directives Mostly Withheld by White House (by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News)

Missing Homeland Security PPDs – Why not Online? (by Christian Beckner, Homeland Security Watch)

11 Secret Documents Americans Deserve to See (by David Wallechinsky, AllGov) (see #7)


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