The Coalition Column

Grading the Obama Administration on Access and Secrecy

Lee White, November 2010

On January 21, 2009, stating, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” President Barack Obama announced a sweeping series of transparency reforms.

In one of his first official acts, President Obama revoked the Bush administration’s Executive Order 13233 that severely limited access by the public to presidential records. The president also issued a Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, and a Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), directing all members of his administration to operate under principles of openness and transparency.

On December 29, 2009, the president issued Executive Order 13526 to significantly improve the system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information, including the establishment of the National Declassification Center to conduct a unified and efficient declassification review of historically important older records. The president also issued a memo to the heads of federal agencies highlighting the importance of implementing these changes promptly and effectively.

On October 7 of this year, the president signed into law bipartisan legislation (H.R. 553) to decrease over-classification and promote information sharing across the federal government and with state, local, tribal, and private sector entities. The legislation does this by establishing procedures and by providing training and incentives to promote accurate classification of information by federal employees. The 9/11 Commission concluded that overclassification and inadequate information sharing contributed to the government’s failure to prevent the attacks of 9/11.

Despite the issuance of these directives and passage of legislation as President Obama nears the mid-point of his first term, how well has he done in meeting the commitment he made that his administration the most open, transparent and accountable in history? While limited in scope, two recent reports issued recently gave the Obama administration mixed grades in his achievement of these goals at least with regard to the Freedom of Information Act and declassification.

In September, the 2010 Secrecy Report Card was released by OpenTheGovernment.org—a coalition of more than 70 groups advocating for open government, including the National Coalition for History. The issues discussed in the report include: classified information and classified costs, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), signing statements, use of state secrets, and more. The report shows a continued decrease in most indicators of secrecy since the end of the Bush Administration and growing backlogs in the declassification system as old secrets move through the system. The report covers the first nine months of President Obama’s Administration.

According to Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, “Encouraging trends are evident in these early months of the Obama Administration, in both FOIA and in general secrecy. In general, after hitting high water marks during the Bush Administration, statistics indicate the creation of new national security secrets is slowly ebbing.” In fiscal 2009, for example, the number of original classification decisions, the “sole sources of newly classified information,” decreased almost 10 percent to 183,224—down from 203,541 in 2008.

The statistics also indicate, however, that the declassification system continues to fall further behind. For example, in fiscal 2009, the government spent $196 maintaining the secrets already on the books for every one dollar spent declassifying documents. Only one-half cent of every dollar spent on security classifications costs overall was spent on declassification, and eight percent fewer pages were declassified than in 2008. Overall, expenditures to maintain secrecy increased two percent.

The only indicators covered by the report that may reflect the Administration’s open government initiative concern the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In fiscal 2009, the federal government processed 55,000 more FOIA requests than it received in 2009 and reduced backlogged pending requests by almost 56,000.

On September 30, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a report detailing the state of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) under the Obama administration based on the results of a survey CREW conducted of hundreds of FOIA professionals in the federal government. The survey results revealed a wide range of concerns, from political interference in the processing of FOIA requests to a lack of training for staff. Survey respondents identified lack of staffing and lack of funding as the biggest impediments to implementing the FOIA at their agencies. CREW’s survey results also suggest mixed results for some of the administration’s key FOIA initiatives. The new chief FOIA officers, intended to bring more accountability to the agency FOIA process, were described by one survey respondent as a “useless position filled by someone who is already wearing too many managerial hats.” Most agreed this new level of bureaucracy has not made processing requests any easier, although one respondent credited the agency’s chief FOIA officer with getting “an agency-wide directive signed that clarified that every agency employee plays a role in FOIA.”
“While the Obama administration has taken several positive steps forward, there is still a ways to go,” said Anne Weismann, CREW’s chief counsel. “Despite the administration’s emphasis on transparency and accountability, the harsh reality is that without more money for staffing and other resources, we cannot expect significant improvement in how agencies implement the FOIA.”

Additionally, while the majority of survey respondents were aware of the administration’s pro-disclosure policies—expressed in memoranda from the president and attorney general—this awareness has yet to translate into a major shift in the FOIA culture across the federal government.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He expresses his gratitude to the National Security Archive and the Associated Press, on whose reports he has heavily relied for writing this article. He can be reached at lwhite@nationalhistorycoalition.org.