My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
Although President Barack Obama still has a few years left, it’s becoming clear that he has no intention of bringing any sort of increased transparency to government. His administration has continued the abysmal precedent of the George Bush administration and has even sunk to new lows.
Since the very beginning of his term, Obama has hurried down a path of obfuscation and redaction, denying more Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in his first two years than George “Patriot Act” W. did.
Even when the Obama administration wasn’t denying requests outright, it showed a disturbing tendency to censor or withhold information. In a 2011 report by the Center for Effective Government analyzing the percentage of requests fully and partially granted since 1998, the Obama administration was found to have fully granted only 44.4 percent. This placed the administration well behind both Bush, who granted 62.8 percent and Clinton, who granted 72.4 percent.
How did we reward Obama for his new-found affection for opaqueness? By giving him a transparency award. Which he received in private. Okay, it wasn’t the end of the world. It made more sense than the whole “Nobel Peace Prize” thing, and, after all, he did release the White House visitor logs. There was still plenty of time to set his administration on the right path.
But then 2012 happened, and another report on FOIA by the Center for Effective Government found that:
Although the number and timeliness of the FOIA requests processed has improved, fewer people are getting complete and full documents. Over the last four years, the proportion of FOIA releases that go out with redacted information has significantly increased. Well over half of all processed requests withhold some information. Agencies are increasingly using exemptions to limit the amount of information disclosed in response to FOIA requests. This is a troubling development for an administration with an avowed commitment to openness.
Unfortunately Obama’s recalcitrance towards enacting any real reforms to improve the FOIA process was only one of his failures. In October of 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalism released a report that accused the administration of “prosecuting more more people as whistleblowers under the 1917 Espionage Act than all former presidents combined.” Hardly the actions of a president worried about transparency.
With the administration busy prosecuting journalists, maybe 2013 would be the year it rolled up its sleeves and got serious about improving its FOIA response. After all the boss no longer had to worry about running for re-election, and (theoretically) had more time to concentrate on the issues. Let’s go back to the Center for Effective Government for a report!
The Freedom of Information Act was purportedly a priority for both the executive and legislative branches in 2013, although nothing made it over the finish line. Our report analyzing the FOIA performance of major federal agencies found that agencies were processing more requests and reduced the number of unprocessed requests; at the same time, they were using exemptions to redact or withhold information more often.
Zing. When even the .govs are getting in on the action you know you’re in trouble.
Finally the mainstream media seemed to take notice — not until after the election, naturally — but better late than never. In January The New York Times editorial board asked What Happened to Transparency, as they cut into the Obama administration over a secret memo that “outline[d] the supposed legal authority for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect Americans’ telephone and financial records without a subpoena or court order.”
Now with 2014’s sunshine week here at last, we can again take a look inside the administration’s once and future promise of being the most transparent ever. And the news is not good.
In a devastating report, the AP castigated the government’s pathetic response to FOIA requests, saying:
The administration 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. Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests, the analysis found.
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.
These recent revelations should not be a surprise. The Obama administration has spent 6 years slowly tightening its grip on government information. And with 2014 being the worst since Obama took office, there’s no reason to believe the future will hold any improvement.
After all, why would Obama even care at this point? It was a virtual non-issue in 2012 during the presidential campaign. His awful record was public knowledge, yet it was hardly ever mentioned by anyone in the press other than Jon Stewart. He skated by unscathed and now Obama has nothing to gain by attempting to work towards his original promise of an open government. Obama won his re-election, and there’s no one left to pander to anyway.