Only in Washington would political appointees think it appropriate to have secret a government workshop on transparency, and only in Washington would a politician promote his efforts on transparency while simultaneously taking steps to keep the American people in the dark about their government. That’s exactly what the Obama White House did on December 7, 2009. Judicial Watch now has the evidence to prove it.
Judicial Watch recently released documents detailing the Obama White House decision to close to reporters a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) training workshop conducted by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). JW obtained the documents from the OIP in response to a FOIA request filed on the same day the workshop was held.
The documents consist of a series of emails between White House staff and the Director of the OIP. And here are a few key excerpts from these emails demonstrating what disrespect this White House has for transparency:
- “I am going to touch base with my public affairs office re your suggestion to get their reaction. I, personally don’t object as my message is the same whether the event is open or not. Our concern had been solely with the inhibiting effect it would have on the gov’t ‘ees [employees] who might not speak freely if press are there.” — Melanie Pustay, OIP Director, to Blake Roberts, Deputy Associate White House counsel, December 6, 2009.
- “Ok – please don’t have them reach out to any reporters before I clear w/ wh [White House] press.” — Blake Roberts to Melanie Pustay, December 6, 2009.
- “After talking with… ben labolt [then-Assistant White House Press Secretary], the decision is that the training will be closed to the press.” — Gina Talamona, Press Release Deputy Director for the DOJ to Melanie Pustay and Brian Hauck, Counsel to the Associate Attorney General, December 7, 2009.
- “I think you have the right to give closed training when you want it.” — Brian Hauck to Melanie Pustay and Gina Talamona.
The documents also include a statement by OIP Director Melanie Pustay regarding previous FOIA workshops: “So far I have always held parallel sessions, one for agency ‘ees [employees] and then one that is open.”
Now that’s interesting: A different workshop for “public view” than the one the employees are getting behind closed doors.
Regarding the FOIA training conference held on December 7, 2009, it was jointly hosted by the OIP and the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) as a private workshop ostensibly to provide tips to FOIA public liaison staff members on communicating, negotiating, and resolving disputes with individuals and organizations submitting FOIA requests. But what was actually said and done in this private workshop we may never know. That’s why there was so much criticism heaped upon the Obama administration when the transparency workshop was closed to the public.
This decision flew in the face of Obama’s own words. On his first full day in office Barack Obama promised to “usher in a new era of open government” and directed agencies to administer the FOIA “with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails.” President Obama further instructed agencies that information should not be withheld merely because “public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”
So much for that.
Now, it is unlikely you’ve ever heard of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy. I sure wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t work at Judicial Watch. But you should know that this office at DOJ provides policy guidance and oversight for the entire federal government on freedom of information. Specifically, according to its own website the OIP is responsible “for ensuring that the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines are fully implemented across the government.”
The fact that the lead federal office on transparency keept secret a transparency workshop is beyond ironic. There is a scandalously wide gap between Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and the secretive policies of his administration. These documents suggest that it is the Obama White House itself that is directly responsible for this unprecedented lack of transparency.
It was supposed to be a scandal beyond all scandals when the Bush White House expressed opinions on the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys appointed by the President. This so-called politicization of the DOJ was supposed to end with the installation of Attorney General Eric Holder. Well, Judicial Watch understood that it would actually get worse because Holder is a notorious political hack.
Sure enough, we caught the White House ordering around the DOJ on this important policy issue. For what other issues does the DOJ seek the opinion of the White House? Black Panthers? Fast and Furious? Suing states that want to protect their citizens from illegal immigration? Corruption investigations involving the Obama machine?
This scandal will reach much further than broken transparency promises.