State Department Hunkers in Secrecy Bunker over Keystone XL

February 11, 2015

Is the State Department review of whether to permit the Keystone XL pipeline transparent? Not at all. State spokesperson Jen Psaki stiff-armed the Associated Press' Matt Lee February 3, 2015, when he asked whether all eight agencies invited to comment had done so.

This from the administration President Obama had pledged on his first day in office would be "the most open and transparent in history."

State had previously acknowledged that eight agencies faced a February 2 deadline to submit views on the KXL permit application. With the deadline expired, the AP's Lee asked Psaki how many had turned in comments. Psaki refused to say, labelling the whole thing as an "internal interagency process." Things got testy.

The fortification of State's bunker might be understood as a sign there is a political shooting war going on. President Obama has delayed making a final decision on KXL for years, and incoming Senate Republicans have made KXL-forcing legislation their first priority — legislation Obama has vowed to veto pending State's review process. Matt Lee's questions February 3 went specifically to the administration's decision timeline. Psaki said they had no timeline. GOP allegations of delay were a major justification for the legislative confrontation.

Press spokespeople rarely do irony. Otherwise, Psaki might have noted that President Obama had already signalled that he was leaning against the pipeline in a December 8, 2014, interview with Stephen Colbert. So much for secrecy.

Further absurdity abounded. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had already made public its views on the project, publishing a February 2 letter transmitting comments on KXL's environmental impact statement. EPA questioned State's assertion that KXL would entail no additional greenhouse emissions. Even though EPA's response to the February 2 deadline was public knowledge, Psaki would not acknowledge that it had happened. EPA, by releasing its letter, had actually put itself ahead of State and other agencies on the openness scale.

If State's motive for hunkering in a defensive crouch was to avoid political sniper fire, that ironically backfired as well. The conservative and right-wing media collectively had a field day criticizing State's (and Obama's) lack of openness in the incident. They included National Review Online, the Daily Caller, Breitbart, the Washington Free Beacon, and Real Clear Politics.

State briefing vets could not help recalling an earlier dialogue on transparency between Jen Psaki and the AP's Lee. It happened on April 25, 2014, the day the State Department announced its "Free the Press" campaign highlighting news media abroad that are censored or threatened. In a landmark of bad timing, that was also the day that the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to compel the New York Times' James Risen to testify against a confidential source. It was Matt Lee who grilled Jen Psaki on the evident contradictions that day.

Sometimes agencies justify secrecy about their in-house deliberations on a regulatory decision by saying they do it to maintain the integrity of the decision process — asserting they can only get frank advice by keeping it private. But in the case of the State Department's deliberations on Keystone, the integrity of the process has long since been destroyed, critics would assert. State's draft Environmental Impact Statement on KXL was prepared by a contractor with profound conflicts of interest — and State hid the fact of that conflict from the public. The climate-related conclusions of that draft EIS were stiffly criticized in public comments on it, and the State Department kept those comments secret as well. An environmental group had to sue the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act to get information on the wildlife impacts of the pipeline.

Psaki told journalists asking about KXL at the January 16, 2015, briefing that "this is not a backroom decision."

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