Want to know the names of the individuals and companies leading the “tech surge” called in to fix Obamacare’s main website? If you ask “the most transparent administration in history,” you’re basically out of luck.
At his daily briefing on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney faced direct questions about just who is repairing HealthCare.gov.
“If these individuals work for companies that have business before the White House, business before the Congress, do you think, in the interests of transparency, it would be a good idea to list the people and their companies?” asked Ed Henry of Fox News.
“At this point, Ed, I just don't have more information than I gave you. I would refer you to HHS,” Carney replied, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Carney had done the same on Monday when Obama had heralded the anonymous experts in a Rose Garden speech.
The problem? An HHS press officer that Yahoo News reached by email wouldn’t comment on the record, while a question submitted via a complex form on the agency’s website never even got a reply.
Following up on Henry’s question, The Washington Post's Scott Wilson gamely tried to understand whether the White House would direct HHS to answer questions that Carney wouldn’t — implicitly suggesting that the spokesman was giving a “no comment” by another name.
“Obviously several times today and in the past quite a few times you're referring us to HHS for information. Is it your expectation that they will answer those questions for us?” Wilson asked.
“The website that is of considerable focus, understandably, is run by HHS and CMS. They have a team in place that's working on it. They have brought in individuals as part of this tech surge to help them deal with the problems on the website. So they are the people best situated to answer their — you know, questions that you have. I would refer you to them about what questions they can answer or they're able to answer,” Carney replied.
Wilson tried again, noting that Henry’s question “seems like basic right-to-know information.”
“How much is this costing taxpayers' money? As a longtime Washington reporter before you took this job, obviously that would likely be something that you felt was a right to know. Will we get that information from HHS?” the scribe asked.
“Well, I would address your question to HHS. I don't have that information. I don't — you know, and this is an operation being run by HHS,” said Carney.
Wilson, apparently determined to embody the triumph of optimism over experience: “I'm just saying, should they provide that? Should —"
“Well, again, I would refer you to HHS about what information they have and what they're able to provide,” Carney replied.
Yahoo News reached out to HHS — which pulled the curtain back a bit, confirming that former acting Office of Management and Budget Director Jeff Zients, due to become head of Obama’s National Economic Council in late 2013, will lead the effort.
Who else is part of the team? HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ statement acknowledged “additional experts and specialists drawn from within government, our contractors, and industry, including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies.”
“These reinforcements include a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows,” she added.
Which ones? Yahoo News asked HHS.
From HHS: [Crickets.]
This isn’t some dumb inside-the-Beltway game. As Henry implicitly points out, private-sector firms with government contracts could be pressured into doing the work — or expect undue rewards for pulling Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement off the technological rocks. (Of course, disclosing their identities also could expose those individuals or corporations to retaliation from Obamacare’s fiercest critics.)
Obama has drawn increasing fire for practices like closing events on his schedule to the news media while publicizing them with his official photographer, whose pictures paint an unfailingly flattering portrait of the president. Obama also faces mounting criticism for what amounts to an unprecedented effort to thwart journalistic scrutiny.
Compared to the crackdown on national security reporting, Carney’s evasions seem almost quaint — and, after all, White House press secretaries don’t know everything.
There’s even a tragi-comic precedent in the Bush administration, which Democrats pummeled as overly secretive.
In February 2001, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank chronicled then-press secretary Ari Fleischer’s penchant for no-comment bank shots, referring reporters to … well, here’s how Dana put it:
"Fleischer, like most press secretaries, is becoming skilled at the art of saying little, but saying it expansively. Rarely does he offer the unhelpful phrase, ‘No comment.’ Instead, he directs the questioner to ask somebody else. ‘I refer you to’ has become the phrase of choice for Fleischer, who has turned the press office into a veritable referral service.
"Let me refer you to State. . . . I would refer you to the CIA. . . . I'd refer you to the Department of Energy. . . . Let me refer you to DOT. . . . Let me refer you to Senator Ashcroft's spokeswoman. . . . I would refer you to the president's energy policy. . . . I'd refer you to Mary Ellen. . . . I'm going to refer you to Margaret. . . . I'm going to refer you to State or DOD on that, depending. . . . I'm going to refer that to Ambassador Zoellick, his excellency and plenipotentiary. . . .
"Among the institutions large and small to which Fleischer has referred reporters: 'the Ashcroft team,' 'Gordon Johndroe,' 'the Senate,' 'campaign statements,' 'the National Archives,' 'the law,' 'Tuesday,' 'what he said,' 'legal counsel,' 'the president's words,' 'a good broker,' and simply, 'others.'"