Obama Administration Transparency Faces Congressional Oversight

March 16, 2012 - 4:42 PM
Obama

President Barack Obama speaks during a 'Lawyers for Obama Luncheon' fundraiser, Friday, March, 16, 2012, at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(CNSNews.com) – Congress will hold a hearing Wednesday to evaluate President Barack Obama’s three-year-old pledge to make transparency the “touchstone” of its administration.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee issued a report last Thursday that found the administration as a whole was slightly above average in providing government documents to the public.

The grade of C- was achieved only by high scores from small government agencies, but major cabinet level departments such as the departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Interior and as well as the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) got failing grades for transparency.

The Department of Homeland Security earned a grade of a D, a year after it came under scrutiny for alleged politicization of responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The House report comes the same week the Justice Department sought to make a new category of documents exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and a month after an open government group that is part of George Washington University issued a stinging report on the secretiveness of the Obama Justice Department.

In February, the National Security Archive, the GWU group made up of scholars and journalists advocating for transparency, announced the “Rosemary Award for Worst Open Government Performance in 2011” goes to the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder. The “award” is named for Rosemary Wood, the secretary in the Nixon White House who helped obstruct the Watergate investigation.

The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on technology and information policy will hold a hearing on the committee staff report regarding the Obama administration’s response to open record requests from the public. It issued a D grade to the Justice Department.

“The Department of Justice, which is responsible for setting FOIA compliance throughout the government, produced logs for only three of its components (40 components received the request),” the House oversight report said.

“One set of logs produced by the DOJ is through its main FOIA office, the Office of Information policy (OIP). In five years, OIP received 1,843 FOIA requests. Of those 1,843 requests, only 253 received either full or partial grants of records,” the report continues. “There were 517 requests still pending, and 61 requests denied in full. The remaining requests were closed for numerous legal reasons, usually listed as ‘other’ in the logs.”

The administration argues it has a strong record on transparency, having made White House visitor logs available, and this month announced a centralized Internet database, ethics.gov, that includes lobbying reports and campaign finance filings.

“For over three years, the administration has done much to make information about how government works more accessible to the public, and to solicit citizens’ participation in government decision-making,” a March 8 White House press release said. “We have devised ambitious Open Government Plans designed to increase opportunities for public engagement.”

One day after taking office, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum instructing executive branch agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.”

“Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” Obama said on Jan. 21, 2009 at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, near the White House. “Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.”

However, this week, the Obama administration advocated for more secrecy before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Justice Department OIP director Melanie Pustay, who oversees the FOIA division, asked the committee on Tuesday, to allow the government not to disclose material relating to cybersecurity, U.S. computer networks, industrial plans and pipelines.

“There's a wide range of sensitive material whose disclosure could cause harm and which had previously been protected and which is now at risk,” she told the committee. “The Supreme Court was sympathetic in its decision to the policy concerns raised by the government regarding the need to protect information when its disclosure risked harm, and the court even acknowledged that it might be necessary for the government to seek relief from Congress.”

This could be another case of the administration falling short of its commitment, said Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, during a hearing Tuesday.

“Open government and transparency are essential to maintaining our democratic form of government,” Grassley said. “Our Founding Fathers knew this, as James Madison once said, ‘a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.’”

He said even Congress has trouble getting information from the administration.

“Based on my experience in trying to pry information out of the executive branch, I’m disappointed to report that agencies under the control of President Obama’s political appointees have been more aggressive than ever in withholding information from the public and from Congress,” Grassley said. “There’s a complete disconnect between the President’s grand pronouncements about transparency and the actions of his political appointees.”

The Justice Department has made liberal use of the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute government officials who leak to the press. The intent of the law was to punish those that gave aid to the nation’s enemies, was used only three times between 1917 and 2009 to prosecute leaks by government officials to the press, according to The New York Times. Under the Obama administration, the Holder Justice Department has brought six cases against government officials who leaked to journalists.

This, along with restrictions on government documents and court arguments prompted the National Security Archive, the open government group, to give the Rosemary Award to the Justice Department.

Last year, most of the open government scrutiny was targeted at the Department of Homeland Security, after the House oversight panel found that all significant FOIA requests had to be filtered through the political staff of Secretary Janet Napolitano for review. In some cases, political staff would interfere with career staff in deciding whether to release the information.