At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), former director Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote a five-page, single-spaced introduction to the NIH’s 183-page briefing book sent to the transition team. The letter outlined NIH’s history, its recent work and tells of potential “speed bumps” ahead.
Arden L. Bement Jr., the NSF director appointed by Mr. Bush in 2004, sent an e-mail to another NSF official working on the transition in July 2008, suggesting the transition report include “historical examples of new technologies spawned by NSF investments with high economic returns.”
Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach, also appointed by Mr. Bush, wrote a nine-page introduction to the FDA’s report for transition officials, which included information on antiviral drugs, food and drug imports, and hiring plans.
“Rapid and radical change is occurring,” he wrote.
‘A real crapshoot’
The lack of consistency in how agencies respond to open-records requests has been an issue for years.
“It’s one of the frustrating things; it’s a real crapshoot,” said Bill Allison, a veteran investigative journalist who is now editorial director at the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation. Mr. Allison said the foundation for years filed open-records requests to federal agencies seeking the correspondence that members of Congress send to agency officials.
Such letters often include routine referrals of letters from constituents seeking help in dealing with an agency. But the letters also include the occasional request from a member of Congress to a top agency official seeking money for a favored home-state project.
“We wanted to see what they were writing about,” Mr. Allison said.
Though the foundation made the same request to agencies across government, some provided only correspondence logs, while others sent the group hundreds of pages of letters. Still others didn’t respond.
“You can get completely different responses,” he said.
Meanwhile, little attention has been paid to whether transition reports ought to be made public. Far from considering the material secret, the Energy Department has posted thousands of pages of transition materials on its website.
But most agencies haven’t been so quick to disclose.
Former New York Times tax reporter David Cay Johnston, writing in September for the publication Tax Notes, recounted his struggles to obtain from the Treasury Department documents the IRS had prepared for the Obama transition team.
“I expected they would just be given out without a fight, because as a candidate, Obama promised to end the secretive policies of the George W. Bush administration,” Mr. Johnston wrote. Instead, Mr. Johnston said in a phone interview Wednesday, it took an outside lawyer to secure release of the records.