Checking Up on Obama’s Transparency Promises

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Improved transparency was one of the Barack Obama’s major promises coming into office last year. And it wasn’t just an empty campaign pledge. On his first full day in office he signed an executive order declaring that the Freedom of Information Act  “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” FOIA, Obama said, “is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.”

Journalists and open government advocates heralded the move, which came after eight years of disregard and outright disdain for the act under George W. Bush. But when it comes to information requests from citizens and the press, it looks like a number of agencies aren’t doing much better under Obama. From the Associated Press:

The review of annual Freedom of Information Act reports filed by 17 major agencies found that overall, the use of nearly every one of the open-records law’s nine exemptions to withhold information rose in fiscal year 2009, which ended last October.

Among the most frequently used exemptions: one that lets the government hold back records that detail its internal decision-making. Obama had directed agencies to stop using that exemption so frequently, but that directive appears to have been widely ignored.

The administration has made much more information available to the public through initiatives like its Open Government web site and the disclosure of the White House visitor logs. While they are improving transparency, there’s still plenty of information that Americans have asked for and not received, as the FOIA denials indicate. A better measure of openness in government might well be how the administration deals with information that it would rather not make public. As Obama put it in his FOIA memo last year, “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”

UPDATE: Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington also released a grim assessment of the administration’s FOIA responses so far. “Although there has been some progress, secrecy still dominates agency culture,” CREW concludes. 


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend