Surprise!: Obama administration not even close to living up to transparency promises

Though he once promised that his administration would be the most transparent in American history, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to keep sunlight from shining, the Associated Press reports:

More often than ever, the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.
[…]
The government’s own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that halfway through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records. In category after category - except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees - the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.

In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times - a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times. The Defense Department, including the NSA, and the CIA accounted for nearly all those. The Agriculture Department’s Farm Service Agency cited national security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency did twice and the National Park Service once.

It seems that the White House heightened its involvement in the FOIA process in April 2009, three months after President Obama took office. In a memo obtained by Cause of Action, then-White House Counsel Greg Craig told executive-level agencies to “consult with the White House Counsel’s Office on all document requests that may involve documents with White House equities.”

The memo is significant because the previous policy had been to only review FOIA requests that involve documents that originated from the White House. But the April 2009 memo means if someone in the White House has an interest in the documents requested, then the request would be reviewed by the White House counsel.

This sets a completely arbitrary standard in which the White House could claim that it has an interest in a FOIA request simply because it deals with an executive-level agency:

The fact that the White House actively sought not merely proposed production but actual requests from media requesters provides some evidence that the Administration was sensitive to the media.  In fact, the Department of the Treasury, Department of Defense, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have their own sensitive review process for media requesters.   All the more egregious is the fact that the President has used White House equities to reverse the FOIA process:  FOIA is designed to inform the public on government behavior; White House equities allow the government to withhold information from the media, and therefore the public, by having media requests forwarded for review.  This not only politicizes federal agencies, it impairs fundamental First Amendment liberties.

This onerous review process, as Cause of Action notes, slows down response times and politicizes federal agencies, putting the White House’s own political interests above the transparency that President Obama promised.


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