WASHINGTON – It began, as politics often does, with a promise.
“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” President Obama said shortly after his inauguration four years ago.
That was then. How about now?
As Obama moves into his second term and the nation begins “Sunshine Week,” the newspaper industry’s annual effort to promote openness in the public sphere, it seems like a good time to assess whether the president has kept that promise.
Talk to advocates of a more open government, and they will tell you: “Yes, but …”
Obama has put record amounts of federal data online – but he’s kept some crucial national security information secret and cracked down hard on whistle-blowers.
His administration has put a new priority on the Freedom of Information Act and cut the backlog of unfulfilled FOIA requests – but in many cases, FOIA continues to be the information-seeking equivalent of a slog through a sea of mud.
And while Obama has given more interviews than any president, he likes to keep the White House press at more than arm’s length – particularly when he’s golfing with Tiger Woods.
Add it all up, and Obama’s record on opening the government is a mixed bag, said several open government experts interviewed for this story.
Steven Aftergood, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, agreed, adding: “There have been genuine breakthroughs as well as inexplicable failures.”
There’s no doubt that Obama acted on his promise of opening the government. Thanks to his administration, U.S. citizens have more access to data about how their government works than ever before.
A new transparency
It all started with Recovery.gov, which allowed the public to track spending on Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill, but it didn’t end there. Now you can look up all sorts of intricate details about federal spending at USAspending.gov. And data.gov has evolved into a treasure trove of information not just for reporters and researchers, but the general public.
“The administration has been very proactive and has really engaged the agencies in making a lot more data available to the public,” said Patrice McDermott, director of openthegovernment.org.
Looking for the safest baby seats or the best hospital to go to for an operation? Once difficult to access, that government information is now only a few mouse clicks away.
“That sort of thing is really important to the public,” McDermott said.
Of course, Obama has an open-government asset that all but two of his predecessors did not have: the Internet. That being the case, it’s fair to compare Obama’s transparency record only with those of his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“If you look at the history of the presidency, I think that they can say that this is the most transparent administration – but that’s given a really short history,” McDermott said.
The Obama administration has also disclosed the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal – information that open-government advocates have been seeking for 70 years.
Similarly, thanks to Obama administration disclosures, “we know more about intelligence spending than we did in any previous administration,” Aftergood said.
In addition, the administration is now releasing the White House visitor logs.
Given that track record, you might think open-government advocates would be thrilled with the Obama administration – but they’re not, and for many reasons.
“There’s no shortage of problem areas,” Aftergood said.
Some disturbing trends
National security leads the list of problem areas.
America is waging a covert war against al-Qaida, and sometimes the secrecy reaches the realm of the ridiculous.
“The government will not acknowledge that the CIA uses drones for targeted killing,” Aftergood noted. “Everybody knows it, and the administration knows everybody knows it. But they still won’t acknowledge it.”
That’s by no means the only top secret that should concern the public. Likewise, “we do not have clarity on the scale of domestic intelligence surveillance or its impact on the privacy of American communities,” Aftergood said.
Given the Obama administration’s approach to whistle-blowers – those internal government watchdogs who see something wrong and tell someone on the outside about it – it seems unlikely that we’re going to get much more clarity on these national security issues any time soon, either.
Under Obama, federal prosecutors have brought charges against six whistle-blowers for leaking national security information.
“He’s prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all other U.S. presidents combined,” noted Tim Franklin, managing editor of Bloomberg News in Washington and co-chairman of the Freedom of Information Committee at the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The administration defends the prosecutions as a national security matter.
“Disclosing classified information is a crime and by definition hurts our national security,” said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified by name. “We are fully supportive of whistle-blowers who report to appropriate sources. And by making it easier for them to do so, we hope to make it so people don’t feel the need to make classified information public.”
Yet the case of Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency analyst accused of leaking classified information about government waste to the Baltimore Sun, serves as a cautionary tale.
The government charged Drake with 10 felony counts, only to drop the charges at the last minute and settle for a guilty plea on a single misdemeanor. The federal judge in the case, Richard D. Bennett, called Drake’s drawn-out prosecution “unconscionable.”
And Matt Miller, the top Justice Department spokesman in the early Obama years, told Politico: “Drake did seem to be trying to expose actual government waste. I think the outcome of the case probably shows that it was an ill-considered choice for prosecution.”
Journalists warn that there will be another sad outcome of the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute whistle-blowers such as Drake: it will make potential whistle-blowers less likely to engage in truth-telling that aids the public good.
“The chilling effect of leak prosecutions threatens to rob the public of vital information,” Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, said at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference last year.
FOIA: Promise and pitfalls
Of course, there’s much more to reporting than the relentless pursuit of leaks. At least as important, if not more so, is the relentless pursuit of information that, in theory at least, should be the public’s for the asking.
To that end, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. Since then, the FOIA law has been a source of endless stories, as well as endless frustration, for reporters.
From the very start, though, Obama promised to put a new priority on FOIA, issuing a memo saying that the law “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
Four years later, there are signs that this is indeed happening – but not all of the time.
The government’s backlog of unaddressed FOIA requests has plummeted from 130,419 in fiscal 2008 to 71,790 last year, despite an increase in the number of requests.
FOIA officers at federal agencies have a new job title – “government information officer” – and these officials now often communicate with reporters about the status of FOIA requests, rather than letting them fall into a black hole.
It’s all of a piece with the president’s open government promise, said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
“While creating a more open government requires sustained effort, our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people,” Schultz said.
But that black hole still exists at many agencies, as Bloomberg News found out when it sent FOIA requests last June to 15 cabinet agencies, seeking the travel records of their top officials. As of December, nine of those agencies had not yet complied with the request.
“We wanted to put to the test the president’s claim that this would be the most transparent administration in history,” said Franklin, of Bloomberg. “I think the numbers speak for themselves.”
In addition, the Obama administration is increasingly citing exemptions in the law to deny information requests in part or in full. The use of exemptions increased 10 percent in 2011 alone, the Washington Post found last year.
Advocates of open government attribute such lack of progress to a lack of follow-through from Obama, and inertia at many agencies.
“Our sense, from talking to reporters, is that a lot of the bureaucracy hasn’t changed much despite promises and efforts to change the culture,” said Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director for the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press.
More interviews, for some
Of course, there’s long been a culture of contention between the press corps and the president, and that hasn’t changed, even though by some measures Obama has been more open than his predecessors.
Obama has had 35 press conferences, compared with 19 for George W. Bush. And Obama has done 591 interviews with the media since becoming president, which is far more than any president and almost twice as many as Bush, said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University.
“He particularly likes television – local television,” Kumar said of Obama. “He has been interested in getting his message out to the public, and local television is a good choice for him because people watch local news and trust local news.”
Still, some members of the White House press corps feel stiffed by the current president, and it’s easy to see why. Obama didn’t grant the New York Times a sit-down interview last year, and neither the Washington Post nor the Wall Street Journal has been granted such access for years.
“Obama may be the least newspaper-friendly president in a generation,” the Post’s media reporter, Paul Fahri, concluded recently.
Alas, that may simply be a sign of the times.
“It reflects the state of the news organizations themselves,” Kumar said.
Nevertheless, Obama didn’t do himself any favors with those newspapers when he recently shut out the press from his golfing weekend with Woods, a decision that drew protests from the White House Correspondents Association.
“This is a particular episode that brought simmering issues to a head,” Ed Henry of Fox News, the association’s president, told the Post. “The point that the association is making is that access has been eroding for years.”
The White House defended the blackout by saying the golf outing was nothing more than presidential private time.
“This was not a news event in the way his golf outing with the speaker of the House obviously was,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told the Post. “He played golf with a golf pro. That’s it.”
But is it?
Perhaps it’s just one more sign that, no matter what Obama said in 2009, any promise of open government is, by its nature, aspirational – and contentious.
“The president in 2009 laid out a vision, but that vision was never self-executing,” said Aftergood. “It still needs to be fought over at every step of the way.”