Checking Up on Obama’s Transparency Promises

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Improved transparency was one of the Barack Obama’s major promises coming into office last year. And it wasn’t just an empty campaign pledge. On his first full day in office he signed an executive order declaring that the Freedom of Information Act  “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” FOIA, Obama said, “is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.”

Journalists and open government advocates heralded the move, which came after eight years of disregard and outright disdain for the act under George W. Bush. But when it comes to information requests from citizens and the press, it looks like a number of agencies aren’t doing much better under Obama. From the Associated Press:

The review of annual Freedom of Information Act reports filed by 17 major agencies found that overall, the use of nearly every one of the open-records law’s nine exemptions to withhold information rose in fiscal year 2009, which ended last October.

Among the most frequently used exemptions: one that lets the government hold back records that detail its internal decision-making. Obama had directed agencies to stop using that exemption so frequently, but that directive appears to have been widely ignored.

The administration has made much more information available to the public through initiatives like its Open Government web site and the disclosure of the White House visitor logs. While they are improving transparency, there’s still plenty of information that Americans have asked for and not received, as the FOIA denials indicate. A better measure of openness in government might well be how the administration deals with information that it would rather not make public. As Obama put it in his FOIA memo last year, “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”

UPDATE: Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington also released a grim assessment of the administration’s FOIA responses so far. “Although there has been some progress, secrecy still dominates agency culture,” CREW concludes. 

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate