President Barack Obama set a high bar for open government, and he set it quickly.
A minute after he took office, the White House website declared his administration would become “the most open and transparent in history.” By the end of his first full day on the job, Obama had issued high-profile orders pledging “a new era” and “an unprecedented level of openness” across the massive federal government.
But three years into his presidency, critics say Obama’s administration has failed to deliver the refreshing blast of transparency that the president promised.
“Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. … It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it,” said Katherine Meyer, a Washington lawyer who’s been filing FOIA cases since 1978. “This administration is raising one barrier after another. … It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned — I’m really stunned.”
David Sobel, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that “despite the positive rhetoric that has come from the White House and the attorney general, that guidance has not been translated into real world results in actual cases. … Basically, the reviews are terrible.”
Open-government advocates say some administration practices are actually undercutting Obama’s goal. Among their complaints:
• Administration lawyers are aggressively fighting FOIA requests at the agency level and in court — sometimes on Obama’s direct orders. They’ve also wielded anti-transparency arguments even bolder than those asserted by the Bush administration.
• The administration has embarked on an unprecedented wave of prosecutions of whistleblowers and alleged leakers — an effort many journalists believe is aimed at blocking national security-related stories. “There just seems to be a disconnect here. You want aggressive journalism abroad; you just don’t want it in the United States,” ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper told White House press secretary Jay Carney at a recent briefing for reporters.
• In one of those cases, the Justice Department is trying to force a New York Times reporter to identify his confidential sources and is arguing that he has no legal protection from doing so.
• Compliance with agencies’ open-government plans has been spotty, with confusing and inaccurate metrics sometimes used to assess progress. Some federal agencies are also throwing up new hurdles, such as more fees, in the path of those seeking records.
• The Office of Management and Budget has stalled for more than a year the proposals of the chief FOIA ombudsman’s office to improve governmentwide FOIA operations.
Obama’s Open Government Initiative had all the makings of a signature presidential accomplishment: a poor track record by his predecessor, a public commitment by the president himself and a team of White House staffers devoted to fulfilling his vision.
A year ago, representatives of four open-government groups visited the Oval Office to give Obama an award for his “deep commitment to transparency.” (The event prompted some snickering because it was closed to the press and was omitted from Obama’s public schedule.)
But some of the groups that lauded Obama for his intentions have become increasingly frustrated about the administration’s record.