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Obama Must Do More On Open Records

by March 25th, 2010

By Austin Statesman Editorial Board

Please add us to the list of folks with a gripe about President Barack Obama’s follow-through on candidate Obama’s campaign-trail promises.

Embedded in the hope-and-change message that fueled Obama’s historic 2008 victory was a continuing narrative about a government that should be more responsive, more open. After taking office, Obama issued a directive aimed at increasing public access to government records.

How disappointing, then, to find out that the Obama administration is, at an alarming rate, citing open-records law exceptions in turning down requests for federal government records sought by news organizations and others with a clear right to see such documents.

Most galling is the fact that one of the most oft-cited reasons for not disclosing records is one that Obama, in his directive, told agencies to use less frequently. The Freedom of Information Act allows federal officials to cite the so-called “deliberative process” exception as a legitimate reason not to release records.

Deliberative process refers to records that offer insight into the decision-making process leading to federal agency action. As government records go, we see these as among the most important because of the context they add to government decisions.

A recent Associated Press review discovered that major federal agencies relied on that exemption at least 70,779 times during the federal budget year that ended last September. Obama was in office for nine months of that period.

By comparison, the “deliberative process” exemption was cited only 47,395 times during the final budget year of the President George W. Bush administration.

Overall, the agencies reviewed by The AP cited exemptions 466,872 times in the 2009 budget year, up from 312,683 times in the previous 12-month period. That increase came despite an 11 percent drop in information requests from the public.

Therein lies our disappointment in Obama’s efforts on allowing Americans a well-deserved closer and deeper look into how their federal government governs. In promising a more open government, Obama in 2009 said it was important because openness “encourages accountability through transparency.”

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” he said at the time.

It’s a commitment he restated last week in recognizing Sunshine Week, an annual crusade in which news organizations note the importance of open government and highlight problems in access to government information.

In his statement, Obama properly took credit for releasing White House visitor logs “” something the Bush administration fought “” and the increased online posting of federal data.

“We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done,” Obama said in the Sunshine Week statement. “We will continue to work toward an unmatched level of transparency, participation and accountability across the entire administration.”

He seems sincere. On the same day the statement was issued, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and White House Counsel Bob Bauer directed federal agencies to ramp up their response to Freedom of Information Act requests for records.

Here’s hoping they do. And here’s an example of how exasperating this can be. The AP reported it already has waited nearly three months for an Obama administration response to a Freedom of Information Act request for records concerning Obama’s “Open Government Directive” issued last December.

The directive ordered federal agencies to come up with specific, immediate procedures to speed the flow of information to the public.

All Americans “” particularly those who backed Obama in 2008 “” should continue to hope for change in how the administration is handling the people’s records.