Obama Gets a 'Failing Grade' on Transparency

“The American people were promised a new era of transparency with the Obama administration. Unfortunately, this promise has not been kept. To be clear: the Obama administration is less transparent than the Bush administration.”

That’s what I told the House and Senate this week in two separate hearings held in conjunction with “Sunshine Week,” a national initiative by the news media, nonprofits and other organizations to promote government transparency and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing, which took place last Tuesday, was entitled “The Freedom of Information Act: Ensuring Transparency and Accountability in the Digital Age.” The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, which took place on Thursday, was entitled “The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight.”

The hearings went well, and we were treated with respect by both sides of the aisle (even Sen. Al Franken (D-MN)!). As I tweeted after the hearings, the news was the bipartisan support for government transparency and the bipartisan criticism of Obama transparency.

Judicial Watch, as I pointed out to both committees, is by far the most active FOIA requestor and litigator in the nation. Overall, we’ve filed more than 325 FOIA requests with the Obama administration and filled 44 lawsuits against them in order to enforce FOIA law.

I hope you’ll take a moment to read my testimony as I ran through a “greatest hits” of Obama administration stonewalling over the last two years. But here are a few key excerpts:

  • Administratively, agencies built additional hurdles and stonewalled even the most basic FOIA requests. The Bush administration was tough and tricky, but the Obama administration is tougher and trickier.

  • Since American taxpayers are on the hook for trillions of dollars, potentially including already $153 billion alone for Fannie and Freddie, we deserve to know how and why this financial collapse occurred and who in Washington, D.C., is responsible. Unfortunately the Obama administration disagrees. Last year, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the agency responsible for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, responded to our FOIA lawsuit by telling us that all of the documents we seek are not subject to FOIA.

  • In the fall of 2009, Judicial Watch staff visited with senior White House official Norm Eisen, then-Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government, to discuss Judicial Watch’s pursuit of the White House visitor logs. The White House encouraged us to publicly praise the Obama administration’s commitment to transparency, saying it would be good for them and good for us. However, the Obama team refused to abandon their legally indefensible contention that Secret Service White House visitor logs are not subject to disclosure under FOIA law. So we filed a lawsuit to ask the court to enforce the law.

  • ...on major transparency issues, the Obama administration has come down on the side of secrecy. The Obama administration’s releasing “high value data sets” from government bureaucracies is meaningless in the face of key decisions to keep politically explosive material out of the public domain. As far as Judicial Watch is concerned, the Obama administration gets a failing grade on transparency.

A commitment to transparency must cut across partisan lines. Founding Father John Adams was keenly aware of the relationship between secrecy and corruption:
Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge; I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

My testimony came on the heels of a major Associated Press story this week that shows the Obama administration is actually becoming less transparent as time goes on:
Two years into its pledge to improve government transparency, the Obama administration took action on fewer requests for federal records from citizens, journalists, companies and others last year even as significantly more people asked for information. The administration disclosed at least some of what people wanted at about the same rate as the previous year.

People requested information 544,360 times last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the 35 largest agencies, up nearly 41,000 more than the previous year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of new federal data. But the government responded to nearly 12,400 fewer requests.

Truth fears no inquiry. If the Obama administration truly had nothing to hide, it would not go to such extraordinary lengths to keep information from the public. We were very pleased that the new Congress appears ready to take the issue of transparency seriously. And we were honored to play our part in educating Congress and the American people about the Obama administration’s unprecedented addiction to secrecy.

It would not hurt for you to commend Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and House Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) for convening the hearings and listening to your Judicial Watch.

The hearings are available for viewing online. To view the Senate hearing, click here. To view the House hearing, click here.


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