- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

It’s hardly the image of transparency that the Obama administration wants to project: A workshop on government openness is closed to the public.

The event Monday for federal employees is a fitting symbol of President Obama’s uneven record so far on the Freedom of Information Act, a big part of keeping his campaign promise to make his administration the most transparent ever. As Obama’s first year in office ends, the government’s actions when the public and press seek information are not yet matching up with the president’s words.

“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” Mr. Obama told government offices on his first full day as president. “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.”

Mr. Obama scored points on his pledge by requiring the release of detailed information about $787 billion in economic stimulus spending, now available online at www.recovery.gov. Other notable disclosures include waivers that the White House has granted from Mr. Obama’s conflict-of-interest rules and reports detailing Mr. Obama’s and top appointees’ personal finances.

Yet on some important issues, his administration produced information only after government watchdogs and reporters spent weeks or months pressing for disclosure, in some cases suing.

Those areas include what cars people were buying using the $3 billion federal “Cash for Clunkers” program (it turned out the most frequent trades involved pickups for pickups with only slightly better gas mileage); how many times airplanes have collided with birds (a lot); whether lobbyists and donors meet with the Obama White House (they do); rules about the interrogation of terror suspects (the FBI and CIA disagreed over what was permitted); and who was speaking in private with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner (he has close relationships with a cadre of Wall Street executives whose multibillion-dollar companies survived the economic crisis with his help).

The administration has refused to turn over some important records. Mr. Obama signed a law that lets the Pentagon refuse to release photographs showing U.S. troops abusing detainees, which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has since done. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has refused to release details about the CIA’s “black site” rendition program. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t turn over letters and e-mails among FAA officials about reporters’ efforts to learn more about planes that crash into birds.

Just last week, a State Department deputy assistant secretary, Llewellyn Hedgbeth, said at a public conference that “as much as we want to promote transparency,” the agency will work just as hard to protect classified materials or information that would put the United States in a bad light.

People who routinely request government records said they don’t see much progress on Mr. Obama’s transparency pledge.

“It’s either smoke and mirrors or it was done for the media,” said Jeff Stachewicz, founder of Washington-based FOIA Group Inc., which files hundreds of requests every month across the government on behalf of companies, law firms and news organizations. “This administration, when it wants something done, there are no excuses. You just don’t see a big movement toward transparency.”

Mr. Obama has approved startup money for a new office taking part in Monday’s closed conference, the Office of Government Information Services. It was created to resolve disputes involving people who ask for records and government agencies. But as evidenced by the open-records event behind closed doors, there is a long way to go.

“We’d like to know, when they’re training agencies, are they telling them the same thing they’re saying in public, that they’re committed to making the Freedom of Information Act work well and make sure that agencies are releasing information whenever possible while protecting important issues like individual privacy and national security,” said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, of which the Associated Press is a member.

The closed conference will provide tips for FOIA public liaisons on communicating and negotiating with people who make requests and will introduce the new Office of Government Information Services to them, said Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, which takes the lead on government openness issues.

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