We all say things we regret but Barack Obama must really regret announcing on the White House website on his inauguration day that his administration would be “the most open and transparent in history.”
As we close in on the end of Obama’s four-year term, the openness report cards are starting to come in and the consensus is – hardly.
Obama’s record is just slightly better than the Great Stonewaller himself, George W. Bush, and he doesn’t even come close to Bush’s predecessor, Bill Clinton.
Under Clinton, the backlog of Freedom of Information Requests for all executive branch agencies hovered around 13 percent annually. Under Bush the annual backlog had tripled to 39 percent by his sixth year before settling to around 33 percent when he left office.
Obama has done little to relieve that backlog.
What he has done a lot of is cooking the openness books. For instance, his administration likes to crow that 95 percent of FOIA requests are complied with (once it gets around to them), which is better than Clinton’s 93 percent and the Great Stonewaller’s 89 percent, however openness advocates have bemoaned a marked increase in partial and redacted releases, even more so than under Clinton or Bush.
A good example is the Justice Department record Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) held up during his committee’s Fast and Furious hearings in which the entire content was blacked out. That record request would qualify as “complied” with according to the Obama administration but a reasonable person might conclude that a black piece of paper provides just as much information about the activities of government as one kept locked in a cabinet.
In March, the Justice Department was caught manipulating backlog data when it put out a press release claiming it had reduced its FOIA backlog by 26 percent. Sharp-eyed openness advocates quickly realized that all DOJ did was reclassify thousands of requests as “pending” rather than backlogged and that the actual improvement on its backlog was more like 4 percent.
Another way of tracking an administration’s openness, other than its response rates to FOIA requests, is the number of records dubbed secret, or classified. Again, just after his inauguration, Obama announced that he would reform the record classification rules, which under Bush had hit wild proportions with as many as 24 million records a year deemed secret.
Yet despite his call for reform, Obama has been even more secretive than Bush, classifying as secret a staggering 77 million documents in 2010, according to a 2011 Information Security Oversight Office report. That same office last week released another report about the cost of keeping all those records secret – about $11.4 billion a year. That’s about $4 billion MORE than Arizona spends to run the state.
These records belong to the people of the United States and they have a right to know what their government is doing.
But Obama says he agrees then does the opposite. The only thing transparent about his administration are his words.