Familiar barriers slow Obama's transparency drive
Friday, March 18, 2011; 3:52 AM
WASHINGTON -- One government agency is still trying to find correspondence for a political reporter between federal officials there and prospective presidential candidates - from the 2008 election. Another censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about President Barack Obama's new rules on open government. Another agreed to hand over records of travel expenses then changed its mind and refused to turn them over.
Two years after Obama pledged to reverse the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy and comply more closely with the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, The Associated Press grapples with many of the same frustrating roadblocks and head-scratching inconsistencies. Several recent examples are described below. Exasperating delays and denials also affect ordinary citizens, researchers and businesses, and they frustrate the administration's goal to be the most transparent in history.
Obama's administration this week defended its progress in disclosing more information rapidly and reducing backlogs of requests for information. Agencies also are posting online large sets of data on auto safety, air quality, crime, health care and employment, which means fewer requests have to be filed in the first place, they said.
"Greater transparency and a more open government are happening right now," said Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy. Her office is responsible for government-wide compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.
Yet it remains a hair-pulling, exhausting experience to ask for federal records from the government. The law can be complicated even when it's applied properly. Patience is a virtue.
Even close allies remain critical of what the government is doing.
John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who led Obama's transition team, told senators this week that federal agencies have done a poor job of keeping Obama's promise to reinvigorate the open records law. And Podesta, who runs the progressive Center for American Progress, singled out the Justice Department for defending government efforts to withhold information in new ways under nine narrow provisions in the law that balance disclosure against important principles like security and privacy.
The Supreme Court weighed in twice in recent months, both times with decisions that open-government advocates applauded. In a ruling issued this month, the court rejected 8-1 the government's broad use of a provision protecting agency personnel rules to withhold Navy maps relating to its main West Coast ammunition dump. The Associated Press is among 20 news organizations that filed a brief urging the court to limit the personnel exemption.
During 2010, Americans arguably learned more about U.S. diplomacy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the unauthorized release of classified documents by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks than through disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act or records that the administration published. Thousands of diplomatic messages leaked by WikiLeaks also made clear that a lot of what U.S. officials insist is confidential isn't a secret at all.
Among the classified documents WikiLeaks revealed? A "scene-setter" message from the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa to the White House prior to Obama's February 2009 trip to Canada. The message, which won't be officially declassified until 2019, informed the president that he is enormously popular in Canada, Canada is America's largest trading and energy partner, and Canada is a staunch and like-minded ally of the U.S.
The Freedom of Information Act requires the government to keep secret information that, if disclosed, might harm national security, reveal the identity of law enforcement informants or undermine a criminal investigation. Agencies also can withhold other materials, such as records that reveal their decision-making behind the scenes, a company's trade secrets or matters of personal privacy.
As the world's largest news organization, the AP asks more than 1,000 times for copies of government records in federal, state or local offices. Its efforts under the Freedom of Information Act last year led to stories about: