Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Obama and the Transparency That Never Was

(first posted at Washington Times) ...

Well, the statistics have been compiled and the results are in, and the conclusion about this current White House and its record of transparency is clear: This administration is about the worst in history.

The numbers don’t just deliver a sigh – they clang a drum. President Obama, after all, did rise into office promising the most open and transparent government ever. On January 21, 2009, his first full day in the White House, he signed two memoranda to the heads of his executive departments and agencies pressing for transparency and for speedy fulfilment of Freedom of Information Act requests. One read, in part: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”

Very well. But Obama didn’t stop there.

On December 8, 2009, Obama’s Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag, advanced the White House’s stated commitment to transparency with the issuance of the Open Government Directive, expressing how agencies and departments were to “implement the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration.” On April 7, 2010, the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board published the outcome of this Open Government Directive – the Open Government Plan – and requested public comment.

All this flurry of activity – surely it’s paid off for the American transparency-seeking citizen, right?

Hardly. As the Associated Press found, in an analysis of the White House’s record on FOIA fulfilment, published this March: “The Obama administration set a record for the number of times its federal employees told disappointed citizens, journalists and others that despite searching, they couldn’t find a single page requested under [FOIA].”

The numbers bare all. On 129,825 different occasions, or on more than one in six times, the government’s response to citizen and media FOIA requests was a resounding Sorry, Can’t Find It. As AP wrote: “People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests, also a record.”

The White House’s response to this subpar performance? Deny and divert.

Obama spokesman Josh Earnest told questioning members of the press he wasn’t aware of the actual FOIA fulfilment figures, but he was certain federal employees were working hard in this regard. He then suggested the media ought to focus on Congress, and the fact members of the House and Senate are exempted from the very FOIA rules they affixed to the executive branch 50 years ago.

“Congress writes the rules and they write themselves out of being accountable,” he said.

That’s a good point – a very valid shot. Why indeed does Congress pass laws it exempts itself from following? But that’s also an argument for a different day. The point Earnest was trying so hard to dodge was that fact Obama pledged an “unprecedented” level of transparency. That was Obama’s word – “unprecedented.” Congress, as a body, hasn’t pledged similarly.

Congress didn’t sign a memorandum directing all its members to provide historical levels of openness and transparency to constituents. But Obama did, and in so doing, invited accountability and feedback.

So the feedback is in. This administration, this president, is failing on FOIA.

“Where’s the transparency that Obama promised?” the Washington Post blared in a headline, from March, 2011.

“This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David Sanger, a long-time Washington correspondent for the New York Times, to the Committee to Protect Journalists in October, 2013.

“Obama’s Transparency Promise Became a Big, Fat Lie,” scolded the Fiscal Times, in a headline for a March, 2015, story.

And of course, the AP’s headline for its March 2016 piece: “Obama Administration Sets Record for Failure to Provide Documents for FOIA Requests.”

Talk about double-speak. Secrecy with this administration is not an anomaly; it’s a trend. And it’s very likely a trend that will be talked about in the history books for decades. Nixon has Watergate, Clinton has Finger-Wagging Lies – and Obama will have the Transparency That Never Was.

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