Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Obama Pledges A New Respect For Freedom Of Information Act

In an immediate and most welcome departure from the Bush administration, President Barack Obama has made it clear that government openness is the new order of the day. At a White House ceremony, he stressed the importance of the Freedom of Information Act (video h/t Talking Points Memo):

"The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is to make it transparent... ...The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. ...this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known. ...the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret doesn't mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent and of holding it accountable, and I expect members of my administration not simply to to live up to the letter, but also the spirit of this law. I will also hold myself as president to a new standard of openness. Going forward, any time the American people want to know something that I or a former president wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the attorney general and the White House counsel whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law..."

Compare the president's stance with that of the previous administration, as reported in 2003 in The New York Times:

The Bush administration has put a much tighter lid than recent presidents on government proceedings and the public release of information, exhibiting a penchant for secrecy that has been striking to historians, legal experts and lawmakers of both parties.

...A telling example came in late 2001 when Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the new policy on the Freedom of Information Act, a move that attracted relatively little public attention.

...The Ashcroft directive encouraged federal agencies to reject requests for documents if there was any legal basis to do so, promising that the Justice Department would defend them in court...

Generally speaking, said Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University historian, while secrecy has been increasingly attractive to recent administrations, ''this administration has taken it to a new level.''

Its ''instinct is to release nothing,'' Professor Brinkley said, adding that this was not necessarily because there were particular embarrassing secrets to hide, but ''they are just worried about what's in there that they don't know about.''

Consider the reversal in role that Obama envisages for the attorney general. The attorney general now stands as a safeguard against excessive governmental secrecy, including on the part of the president. Attorney General Ashcroft, in stark contrast, urged the government to reject requests for information just for the sake of rejecting. Then again, a former administration that held secret energy task force meetings, practiced extraordinary rendition of detainees and leaked the names of undercover agents for revenge may have had good reason to constantly cover its tracks. 

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