Day One executive orders are important, and President Barack Obama set his administration on record last week with two important orders reversing the secrecy policies of the Bush Administration and ordering agencies to be more transparent. Journalists and historians are optimistic.
The President's open-records order tells federal agencies to come down on the side of disclosure, rather than look for reasons to deny information, as was often the policy of the previous administration. "You couldn't ask for anything better," Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, an advocacy group that tangled frequently with the Bush administration over records, told the New York Times. "For the president to say this on Day 1 says: 'We mean it. Turn your records over.'"
In effect, Obama ordered his agencies to revert to policies of the Clinton administration, when Attorney General Janet Reno told agencies to disclose information unless "foreseeable harm" could result. President George W. Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, reversed the policy, encouraging agencies to search for exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and pledging to defend them when they rejected requests. The result was a substantial delay in releasing data, and less data released.
Obama's executive order, because it emanates from the White House rather than the Department of Justice, carries the full weight of the President and sends a strong signal for transparency. Media folk are not the only winners in the open-government game, as Joel Connelly pointed out in Thursday’s P-I; stonewalling by Bush appointees was a major hurdle for Sen. Maria Cantwell as she tried to pry open Enron’s files in the first Bush term.
If the FOIA order is critical to journalists and others using the disclosure act, Obama's second order delights historians, who had sharply protested a Bush order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to claim executive privilege and keep records secret almost indefinitely.
The Bush executive order for presidential papers was widely interpreted as an attempt to shield records of his father, President George H. W. Bush, as well as those of Vice President Dick Cheney, who served as defense secretary under the elder Bush. The order gave a sitting president, or the president whose records are being requested, the power to review a documents request, with no time limit. If either president said no, you had to sue to get the records.
Slate designated the presidential-records order as the first of ten that Obama should reverse, noting, "It puts a president's interest in secrecy — to prevent embarrassment, inconvenient revelations, whatever — over the public's interest in understanding past events of national import."
Open-records advocates such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Historical Association had hoped for an early action on FOI, and were ecstatic with the White House announcement. Clint Hendler, writing for the Columbia Journalism Review online, noted the importance of the timing: "In restoring the Reno standard — a move that CJR, among many other voices, called for — on his first full day in office and via such a high profile legal instrument, Obama has struck a quick and prominent victory for government openness. Let's hope it's one of many to come."
Others seized upon Obama's action to urge more openness at the state and local level. Blogger Daniel X. O'Neil of Everyblock.com commented to PBS Idea Lab: "The standards, formats, and policies for the publication of data vary widely from city to city. As for actual FOIA requests, we've heard all of the same stiff reasons for denial that have become cliche for open government advocates. The presumption is rejection, not disclosure."
The exemptions problem caused the Washington Legislature in 2007 to create a "Sunshine Committee," representing media, legal, local government and other interests. The group was charged with examining the estimated 300 large and small exemptions to the 1972 initiative creating the Public Disclosure Act.
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