Study finds Obama’s transparency efforts fall short

GW’s National Security Archive released a study last week that showed President Obama’s administration may not be as transparent as it had pledged to be, but the archive’s director said this week that the study was misrepresented by members of the news media.

Archive Director Tom Blanton conducted an audit of how many documents were released by President Obama’s federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act – a program that enables Americans to obtain documents from government agencies in an effort to increase transparency.

The report, released March 15, found the Obama administration was not as transparent as Obama pledged it to be during the campaign. The report found that only four out of 28 federal agencies audited had released more documents under the FOIA program than Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush. Additionally, the audit found that only 13 out of 90 agencies had changed their FOIA manuals in response to Obama’s pledge.

Though he said the results of the audit were not surprising, Blanton felt the study was portrayed by many national media organizations in a more negative light than he intended.

“The headlines were way more critical of Obama than the study was,” Blanton said in an e-mail. “The study showed the White House deserved an A for effort, but that the results were still incomplete. I think the headline writers just liked the man-bites-dog angle, since Obama is so pro-openness, so to have any mixed results from the agencies becomes a reflection on him.”

The headline of a story in the Los Angeles Times read, “A little secret about Obama’s transparency,” and a headline in the New York Times read, “Report is critical of Obama’s efforts at transparency.” Many blogs used the report to criticize Obama on the eve of the historic health care bill, passed Sunday night.

While Blanton said his independent research institute was excited that the Obama administration pledged to be more open, he said he did not expect years of backlogged FOIA requests to be processed overnight.

“We had applauded President Obama’s declarations about open government starting on his first day in office, and likewise the new FOIA guidance from Attorney General [Eric] Holder in March 2009,” Blanton said, referring to Holder’s pledge to shy away from the Bush administration’s less open stance on releasing documents. “But based on our experience with thousands of FOIA requests across hundreds of agencies, we suspected that not all agencies were living up to those standards. So we did this audit to see just how far the Obama-Holder guidance had pushed agencies for more open government.”

Blanton said the study found that many agencies have backlogs in processing their FOIA requests, with some requests as old as 18 years, pending from the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

The technique for the audit is called a Freedom of Information audit, wherein journalists or investigators submit FOIA requests, not just to obtain information, but also to judge the responsiveness of the agency to the request. This is the eighth audit done by the National Security Archive since 2002.

The audit was released at the beginning of Sunshine Week, the federal government’s annual attempt at openness and transparency.

Blanton said the audit – despite being negatively portrayed by the media – served its intended purpose.

“The best result of the Audit was the response of the White House,” Blanton said. “On Monday last week, we made headlines all over the country with our finding that only 13 out of 90 agencies had really changed their FOIA manuals or guidance in response to Obama. On Tuesday, the White House chief of staff and the White House counsel sent out a memo to all agency heads telling them to change their FOIA manuals and guidance. Now that’s action!”

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