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Government transparency

In his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009, President Obama issued a presidential memo on freedom of information, telling agencies: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

Now, three years later, “New evidence suggests that administration officials have struggled to overturn the long-standing culture of secrecy in Washington,” reports The Washington Post. “Some of these high-profile transparency measures have stalled, and by some measures the government is keeping more secrets than before.”

Media organizations and individuals requesting information under FOIA last year were less likely to receive the material than in 2010 at 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level departments, The Post reports. Furthermore, the federal government “was more likely last year than in 2010 to use the act’s exemptions to refuse information. And the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start, due largely to 30,000 more pending requests to the Department of Homeland Security.”

In fact, even among requests that aren’t backlogged, “The number of requests denied in full due to exemptions rose more than 10 percent last year, to 25,636 from 22,834 the previous year,” The Post reports.

Similarly, the pledge to declassify archived material has run into major delays. The National Declassification Center (NDC) was supposed to review and declassify 371 million pages of material by December 2013. But in its latest progress report, issued last month, the center said it had completed the review of less than 14 percent of the total.

Part of the problem is captured in the stated goal: “declassification.”

The volume of material being classified jumped 20 percent last year, The Post notes. If the goal is openness, why classify so much stuff in the first place?

If we were merely talking about troop deployments and the capabilities of our planes and submarines, such an instinct for secrecy would be more understandable. But what does the Department of Agriculture need to keep secret?

“The reality is that governments generally have a tendency to secrecy,” explains Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Let’s give President Obama the benefit of the doubt. When he came into office, he really intended to do a better job at making government more open and transparent.

So far, he’s failed. He must insist on improvement.

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