Report card: Most transparent administration ever receives a C- in transparency

The day after President Barack Obama took office, he circulated a memo to his executive agencies that urged administration officials to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.”

“Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama said at the time.

Since then, the administration has touted its various “open government initiatives,” its attempts to make an unprecedented amount of information about government happenings available to the public. The White House visitor log, lobbying reports, campaign finance filings — all are available to the public online.

But transparency is as much about what kind of information the government releases as about how much. If the public has no need of the information the administration releases but has great need for information the administration withholds, the government can’t claim to be “transparent.” This administration is opaque in precisely that way. While any data literate individual can synthesize the entries on a host of White House logs, congressional investigators are unable to get to the bottom of important cases like Fast and Furious. The administration frequently ignores Freedom of Information Act requests. They’ve used the Espionage Act of 1917 an unprecedented number of times to prosecute whistleblowers. (The Espionage Act was intended to be used to prosecute government officials who give sensitive information to foreign governments.)

It’s no wonder, then, that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sees a need for a hearing to investigate Obama’s three-year-old pledge to be the most transparent administration ever. That hearing will take place Wednesday.

It’s also no wonder that the same House Committee recently issued a report that gave the administration a grade of C- on transparency. That grade was actually probably generous, inflated by the good work of small agencies. Several major cabinet-level agencies received failing grades, and the Department of Justice received a D. reports that this isn’t the first time the Obama administration has been singled out for its hypocrisy on transparency:

The House report comes the same week the Justice Department sought to make a new category of documents exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and a month after an open government group that is part of George Washington University issued a stinging report on the secretiveness of the Obama Justice Department.

In February, the National Security Archive, the GWU group made up of scholars and journalists advocating for transparency, announced the “Rosemary Award for Worst Open Government Performance in 2011” goes to the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder. The “award” is named for Rosemary Wood, the secretary in the Nixon White House who helped obstruct the Watergate investigation.

It’s evident that the administration would rather bear the brunt of criticism for a lack of transparency than actually release the information investigators want and need. Consider this, for example:

“One set of logs produced by the DOJ is through its main FOIA office, the Office of Information policy (OIP). In five years, OIP received 1,843 FOIA requests. Of those 1,843 requests, only 253 received either full or partial grants of records,” the report continues. “There were 517 requests still pending, and 61 requests denied in full. The remaining requests were closed for numerous legal reasons, usually listed as ‘other’ in the logs.”

With an election on the horizon, expect to see the Obama administration remain as protective of information as ever. Again, they’d rather risk the appearance of hypocrisy than release any information that could jeopardize Obama’s reelection.

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David Strom 6:01 AM on June 06, 2023