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…