Obama Orders Could Open Records
By Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Barack Obama's first acts as president included signing three orders today that could open public access to documents and records that had been closed off during the Bush administration.
Obama reversed George W. Bush's restrictions on access to records of former presidents. He also told the Justice Department to write new guidance to agencies on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to improve transparency, and gave top officials in his administration four months to create a new "Open Government Directive" that he said would go beyond the requirements of the open records law.
If the new rules are followed within the government, they could open scores of records that have been closed for years to the public and reporters. Some agencies, with the encouragement of the Bush administration's legal advisers in the Justice Department, have reached deep into FOIA's exemptions to withhold information.
During the military tribunals in Guantanamo Bay, for example, the names of drugs forcibly administered to prisoners were withheld, claiming they would create "an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" -- one of the law's reasons for rejection. News organizations and local citizen groups have had little access to information on toxic chemical spills that used to be readily available on the Internet. And agencies have tried to rebuff The Post and other news organizations on such requests as the schedules of high-level officials, the names and salaries of political appointees, and inspection results for government-owned or subsidized housing. In one case, officials blacked out every name on every document in the name of privacy -- including one that was an old press release.
The two memoranda to agency heads reverse the Bush administration's policy of rejecting requests for records whenever there is a justification in the loosely worded Freedom of Information Act.
One of Obama's memos says: "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public."
Of course, other presidents have made promises of transparency, with only modest effect. The Clinton administration issued similar guidance in 1993, but officials sometimes stalled and sidestepped the open records laws anyway. The White House itself -- which is largely exempt from the law's requirements and can choose to release whatever records it wants -- doled out records sparingly, often only after they had already been leaked.
And Obama's memos did not address the growing practice of marking documents as "controlled unclassified information," in an attempt to limit their circulation.
In 1996, the E-FOIA, which modernized the FOIA law to include electronic records and public access through the Internet, was supposed to fix many of the problems. But few of the FOIA Web sites of government agencies follow the rules to provide copies of commonly requested records or guides to their records systems. A 2005 executive order signed by President Bush was supposed to improve the broken FOIA system, but it has resulted in few noticeable changes.
By The Editors |
January 21, 2009; 6:55 PM ET
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