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How "secrecy" is hurting Obama's trade deal

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Politico published a devastating op-ed by Michael Wessel. The headline was: "I’ve Read Obama’s Secret Trade Deal. Elizabeth Warren Is Right to Be Concerned."

And for the Obama administration, it actually got worse from there.

Wessel is a so-called "cleared adviser" for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal: in the trade-deal world, that's essentially like having a security clearance. He gets regular briefings on the TPP and can see draft language of the agreement. But he can't tell the public what he's read.

He used that unusual status to uncork a pretty brutal one-two punch on the administration: he said both that he's read Obama's trade deal and it's terrible, and that some of the trade deal has been kept secret from him and perhaps that part is even more terrible.

The public criticisms of the TPP have been vague. That’s by design—anyone who has read the text of the agreement could be jailed for disclosing its contents. I’ve actually read the TPP text provided to the government’s own advisors, and I’ve given the president an earful about how this trade deal will damage this nation. But I can’t share my criticisms with you.

I can tell you that Elizabeth Warren is right about her criticism of the trade deal. We should be very concerned about what's hidden in this trade deal—and particularly how the Obama administration is keeping information secret even from those of us who are supposed to provide advice.

So-called "cleared advisors" like me are prohibited from sharing publicly the criticisms we’ve lodged about specific proposals and approaches. The government has created a perfect Catch 22: The law prohibits us from talking about the specifics of what we’ve seen, allowing the president to criticize us for not being specific.

The impression of secrecy around the TPP has been a disaster for the administration. Nothing sounds worse than a secret trade deal. After all, if the deal were really so good, then surely the administration wouldn't be keeping it secret!

The TPP isn't as secret as critics say

But the deal isn't really that secret. Pretty much every interest group involved in this fight and every member of Congress wading into this fight more or less knows what's in the deal.

Which isn't to say they know everything that's in the deal. But if they're not going to like the trade deal, they know enough to know they're not going to like it. If the deal were truly secret, there wouldn't be all this opposition, as the detractors wouldn't know enough to be upset.

And that's really the key to understanding the fight over the TPP's "secrecy." When the TPP is finished, it will be released to the public. All of it. There won't be a secret word in the whole deal.

But what's unusual about the trade deal process is that if the president gets the trade authority he's looking for, then once the deal is finalized and released to the public, Congress won't be able to change it. It will be forced to take a direct up-or-down vote. No amendments, no revisions.

There's reason for that — if every trade deal were being continuously amended by the legislature of every country that was party to the trade deal, no trade deal could ever get done. But it's also why the trade deal's critics are so frustrated. The deal is closed to the public during the period in which it could be modified, and only public once it can no longer be changed.

But the strange process behind the trade deal has also shredded the Obama administration's messaging on it. The state of play is that the critics of Obama's trade deal know enough to hate it, the advocates for Obama's trade deal can't defend it because they can't tell anyone specifics, and the public just keeps hearing about this secret trade deal being secretly negotiated by secret people in a secret process. In secret.

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