Transparency? Not So Much.

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 6, 2009


The Obama Administration promised us open government. Their delivery, however, has been less than impressive:

It’s hardly the image of transparency the Obama administration wants to project: A workshop on government openness is closed to the public.

The event Monday for federal employees is a fitting symbol of President Barack Obama’s uneven record so far on the Freedom of Information Act, a big part of keeping his campaign promise to make his administration the most transparent ever. As Obama’s first year in office ends, the government’s actions when the public and press seek information are not yet matching up with the president’s words.

“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” Obama told government offices on his first full day as president. “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.”

Obama scored points on his pledge by requiring the release of detailed information about $787 billion in economic stimulus spending. It’s now available on a Web site, Other notable disclosures include waivers that the White House has granted from Obama’s conflict-of-interest rules and reports detailing Obama’s and top appointees’ personal finances.

Yet on some important issues, his administration produced information only after government watchdogs and reporters spent weeks or months pressing, in some cases suing.

Those include what cars people were buying using the $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program (it turned out the most frequent trades involved pickups for pickups with only slightly better gas mileage); how many times airplanes have collided with birds (a lot); whether lobbyists and donors meet with the Obama White House (they do); rules about the interrogation of terror suspects (the FBI and CIA disagreed over what was permitted); and who was speaking in private with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (he has close relationships with a cadre of Wall Street executives whose multibillion-dollar companies survived the economic crisis with his help).

There are, of course, plenty of things that I would hope are not transparent to the public. The rules concerning interrogation ought to have some semblance of mystery about them, so that terrorist suspects will not be able to circumvent a lawful, but rigorous interrogation. And of course, classified materials ought to be preserved and protected.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we have yet another indication that the gap between rhetoric and reality in this Administration is a particularly pronounced one. Either President Obama ought to come out and admit that he and his Administration have fallen short in their efforts to provide transparency, or he ought to actually try to live up to his promises. In the meantime, the press ought to continue to criticize and castigate the Administration for pulling this bait-and-switch maneuver; the Administration’s behavior shows why so many people are cynical about Washington.

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