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Obama’s ‘open government’ hides transition data
Question of the Day
Top officials at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy say they’re proud to promote a culture of open government, but by one measure, the agency is decidedly on the side of keeping information secret.
The office, which advises President Obama on climate change, national security, health care and other key issues, won’t release almost any of its 2008-09 presidential transition records, including policy papers and even staff biographies. By contrast, other agencies across the federal government made public thousands of pages of transition records in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that The Washington Times filed nearly three months ago.
Often packed with information on operations, legal actions, pending issues, congressional inquiries and finances, the briefing reports that agencies sent to the presidential transition team provide valuable insight into how the federal bureaucracy prepared for a changeover in political power.
Yet not all agencies are willing to share this detail-rich information. Responses to the requests, when provided, were uneven across the government. The Department of Health and Human Services and its agencies provided hundreds of pages of records, but others, such as the Justice Department, have not responded. Still, other agencies produced records but withheld significant portions.
Analysts say the contrasting responses reflect the decidedly mixed views even inside the federal government on whether to make information public and, if so, how much and when.
“If you have the same request and completely different answers, then there’s nobody really calling the shots,” said Scott A. Hodes, a former FOIA lawyer at the Justice Department now in private practice.
The science and technology office initially declined to release any transition records, but later disclosed about 170 pages after The Times appealed the denial. But much of the office’s subsequent response consisted of blank, fully redacted records, in which the officials cited confidentiality exemptions under the open-records law.
“Because the very purpose of a disclosure to a transition team is to implement the statutory mandate ‘to promote the orderly transfer of power,’ such a disclosure could not reasonably be found to waive any applicable FOIA exemption,” the office wrote in response to The Times’ request.
The office also said briefing materials advising superiors are protected from release. Staff biographies also were withheld under an exemption that federal civilian employees “have a protectable privacy interest in purely personal details that do not shed light on agency functions.”
By contrast, the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp. not only provided senior staff biographies in the transition materials it made public, but also included pictures of the officials.
Nonpartisan government watchdog groups questioned the differing responses across federal agencies.
“With the push by the administration to promote an open and ethical government, I’m a little surprised that the White House and some agencies aren’t being more forthcoming with transition information,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight (POGO).
“The public has an interest in learning about how the administration planned to improve government and if those transition reports are shaping policies and programs.”
Rick Weiss, senior policy analyst for the science and technology office, said the office “carefully considered” The Times’ request for transition records and the newspaper’s appeal.
“We have reviewed the request again and concluded that our responses met both the letter and the spirit of FOIA and the president’s policy on openness,” Mr. Weiss said.
About the Author
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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