Obama’s Baby Steps Toward Transparency

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After eight years of oppressive government secrecy, the new Obama administration wasted no time making strides toward what the President called “a new era of openness.” In his first full day in office, Obama signed an executive order and two presidential memoranda aimed at releasing government information from the vice grip of the previous administration.

The steps are a “spectacular start” toward greater government transparency and accountability, according to Stephen Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and writer of the Secrecy News blog, but they are just the start. As President Obama readily acknowledged, many more transparency issues within the federal government need to be addressed.

One of Obama’s early actions was to release a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (pdf), making it harder for the government to “withhold” information. Though laudable, the memorandum doesn’t address the persistent over-classification that’s hampered a free flow of information. The National Security Agency can still classify a host of documents that should be available to the public.

“People from throughout the intelligence, military, and law enforcement communities would acknowledge that the excessive overclassification is a problem,” according to Meredith Fuchs of the George Washington University’s National Security Archive, “and it actually puts us at risk, so it has to be fixed.”

There are a number of high-profile Freedom of Information Act requests still outstanding–including the documents surrounding warrantless wiretapping, detainee treatment, and the millions of missing Bush Administration White House emails–that aren’t addressed in Obama’s preliminary actions either. Fuchs believes these cases present opportunities for the new administration to prove themselves as the advocates to open government with real actions.

So far, according to Fuchs, Obama’s actions have been more of a statement of principals, albeit an important one, rather than a panacea for government accountability. The actions signal a drastic change in the way the government interacts with the American people, but more details are needed, including how the transparency principals are going to be carried out.

“There’s fierce bureaucratic culture of protectiveness” that has taken hold inside the federal government, according to Aftergood. Without definitive rules, the support of congress, and pressure from the public, the cloud of government secrecy won’t go away. What Obama did achieve, Aftergood said, is that “he made it clear that openness is not a slogan, and it is not even an end of itself, rather it is a means to an end, and that ultimate end is a vital and vigorous democracy.”

Image of the National Archives building in Washington D.C.

UPDATE: Talking Points Memo has a video on another angle to Obama’s transparency efforts:

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