Checking Up on Obama’s Transparency Promises

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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. 

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