Obama adminstration brings back the Freedom of Information Act and transparency in government

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Marcia Hofmann has a report card on transparent government measures undertaken by the Obama administration on its first day in office. The news is pretty damned good: they've reversed Ashcroft's restrictions on Freedom of Information Act requests as well as changes to the Presidential Records Act, and have adopted general principles on transparency and open government.
According to Obama's memo: "All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA."

This statement is almost certainly meant to address a controversial memo issued by John Ashcroft in the wake of 9/11, which ordered agencies to disclose information only after considering all possible reasons to withhold it, and assured them that government lawyers would defend their decisions in court unless they had no "sound legal basis." Many open government advocates believe Ashcroft's policy effectively gutted the FOIA over the past several years. Today's memo doesn't explicitly reverse that policy, but directs the incoming attorney general to issue new FOIA guidelines to agencies "reaffirming the commitment to accountability and transparency." This is a big step in the right direction.

The memo doesn't stop there. It goes on to say: "The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and down by their Government. Disclosure should be timely."

On Day One, Obama Demands Open Government


  1. Well, in Sweden all government documents are constitutionally public by default, unless they’re:
    A) Related to national security or relations to a foreign power
    B) Would infringe on personal privacy or private business interests.

    You can go to the office of any politician or civil servant there and ask for copies of their e-mail.

    Of course, there’s also a reason why they’re consistently ranked as one of the least-corrupt nations in the world. Essentially, politicians and others have to restrict their shady dealings to whatever can be done without any written record. Which kind of rules out big conspiracies.

  2. Actually I should add to that:
    C) Police investigations are classified while in progress.

    Also, the biggest strength of their system is probably what they call “messenger protection”. With the exception of national security matters, it’s _illegal_ to investigate the source of a leak.

  3. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and down by their Government.

    Ok, I’m down with that. I wonder what the government is down with today? It looks like out government is switching to ebonics. Not that it would be a bad thing.

  4. Fabulous! I hope there are a lot of people out there who are refiling 7 years worth of denied FOIA requests.

  5. Eclectro, the actual quote reads, “what is known and done by their government,” not “down” which must have been copied wrong.

  6. very smart Obama, this could keep you alive. The more chance that conspiracy will be discovered, the less chance they will have at getting at you.

  7. “Today’s memo doesn’t explicitly reverse that policy”

    How doesn’t reverse? Other than by saying “ashcroft is a loser” he reverted the default from “hide all until last resource” to “show all unless critically important”

  8. There are a few other things I’d like to bring back. Fairness in media for one, public stockades for another.

  9. The original memo (accessible through the EFF link) doesn’t actually say “down by”—but what a great typo!

  10. @1: Who defines what is a national security issue, the government trying to hide the document? If so, this is might be the law in theory but merely a privilege in fact.

    There’s another more subtle problem. Canada has a similar law (with, unfortunately, more exceptions) and it’s become useless because the government has deliberately left the body in charge of deciding what is a national security matter so underfunded that backlogs of years are occurred. Their obvious intention is to make it ultimately impossible to get a document in one’s lifetime.

  11. Speaking of “a presumption in favor of disclosure”, “renew[ing] their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA”, and “transparent government”, are these PDFs EFF links to available from a .gov site?

    I’m all for decentralized archiving of primary sources; access to raw footage and copies of works in formats we can all read with free and open source software. But I’m also for seeing the US government distribute this stuff along side the archivists so we can all see what we’re reading is official.

  12. Obama doesn’t need to wow me with bold plans and great sweeping change. If he just administrates in this sane and competent way, I’ll be happy. We can call it mission accomplished… and mean it.

    His bold initiatives do nothing for me. Meh, I think they are crap shoots at best with one group of economist finally getting to try out an experiment that they always wanted to try but didn’t have a few trillion to try it with. Obama is smart, but he isn’t gifted with some greater intellect that can see THE ANSWER to all of the problems. The best he can do is close his eyes, point to a group of experts, and do what they say hoping for the best. So, his “bold initiatives” do little for me. I hope those gambles work, but I won’t hold my breath.

    What really excites me about Obama is competent administration. Simple stuff like this is what gets my rocks off. Watching Obama’s transition team at work excites me. I just want to see the apparatus of government due the daily mundane shit right, without corruption, and executed by experts instead of politicos. If Obama does that, I’ll be happy, and I have been pretty happy thus far. If whatever multi-trillion dollar gamble some economist talks him into works, great, but I really would just be happy with day to day competence. He gets bonus points for being able to wield the English language without sounding like a moron and not embarrass me when I am foreign countries.

    Americans of the world rejoice. You can get drunk in Europe again and act like a swaggering surly bastard who believes in American exceptionalism again. While you still might get dragged out into the street and beaten senseless, you can do it with a surly grin and in the full belief that they are just jealous.

  13. I think the best thing about this will be the ability to pursue an investigation of the previous administration to determine the extent to which they misled the public on a wide number of issues.

    I keep hearing people complain that the new president has stated he will not pursue such a course, which is smart, because he has other responsibilities. It is not the purview of the executive to pursue investigations, that’s the legislatures job.

    Hopefully journalists will uncover the necessary information if it exists to bring charges against Bush and Cheney.

    2 days in, and the 8 years of seething hatred continues to abate.

  14. Ok. Telecom immunity is much more forgivable now. Not entirely, but much more so.

    I was surprised any FOIA requests ever made it through the last 8 years of opaqueness. Is there a place to gather statistics of that information? Was it a drastic change?

  15. Day Three and already he’s DOING instead of talking about doing. I didn’t vote for either of the major parties, but I am beginning to think that this administration means to make good on at least part of the campaign promises.

    I’m impressed so far.

  16. My experience has been summed up so far by –

    Reading an article that began ‘The White House said today’ and thinking ‘What did that fucker say now- wait…’

    This is taking a lot of getting used to. In a good way, of course, but I am frighteningly accustomed to being oppressed.

  17. since real freedom of information means all the suppressed evidence will surface; should the trials of the previous administration be conducted in America or at an internationally agreed location?

  18. Anybody else feeling disoriented by all the feelings of patriotism and national pride flowing back? I still get dizzy every time I hear about a competent decision from the executive branch.

  19. yep, “within a year”. Who will make sure there are no murders committed by the jailors in that time?
    Also, there are literally thousands, ,if not tens of thousands, of prisoners in CIA black gulags scattered across the world. What of them? Understand there has also been a great deal of extrajudicial execution and proxy execution carried out across the world. Will there be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

  20. I don’t want Truth and Reconciliation. I want justice to be served. Failing that and facing an implosion of our entire system, then I might accept some kind of truth commission.

  21. Jane Mayer reported on the CIA black sites in a 2007 issue of the New Yorker.

    “The C.I.A.’s interrogation program is remarkable for its mechanistic aura. “It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,” an outside expert familiar with the protocol said. “At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.”

  22. @ Noen: The Bush Administration’s crimes reverberated through so many individuals in so many layers of government that a Truth & Reconciliation Commission might be our best bet. If we jailed everybody who enabled the last eight years of wrongdoing then there wouldn’t be anyone left to run the place.

  23. Pffft! This goes to show that Democrats are just like Republicans.

    Well, except that Democrats aren’t arrogant goons with deep contempt for law, accountability, and common decency.

  24. Good, good. Now if he just keeps it up for four years, and doesn’t bankrupt the country or get impeached for abuses of power related to personal real estate scams and sexual abuses, we’ll be good!

    Sorry, that was more directed at the overall republican bashing than at Obama.

    He’s doing a good job. I sincerely hope that this is truly indicative of his plans for the future. I hope he really is a honest and good as you all seem to believe.

    But frankly, I don’t trust anyone who actually wants to be president. The desire for power is the surest sign that someone isn’t qualified to have it.

  25. Takuan@28: According to the Washington Post, “Sources familiar with the briefings said Obama also will sign two executive orders altering CIA detention and interrogation rules, limiting interrogation standards in all U.S. facilities worldwide to those outlined in the Army Field Manual, and prohibiting the agency from secretly holding terrorist detainees in third-country prisons.”

    As for closing Gitmo within a year…well, it would be nice, but you need to find a place to put everybody. You can’t really lock the doors and ask them to swim for it. Hopefully the new transparency rules will make it harder for people to commit abuses.

  26. how will the CIA be prevented from lying to the Executive? Remember they are an utterly amoral and separate entity whose only objective is its survival.

  27. Restored power to FOIA and Gitmo’s eviction notice in the first few days of the new administration. I keep trying to read the articles, but this watery substance keeps leaking from my eyes. And what’s this weird, floaty feeling I’m getting as I read about my government’s actions…el..elation?

  28. just because the little bag of pus is gone doesn’t mean it can’t entertain us:

    “WASHINGTON, DC: In a stunning late-hour development, President George W. Bush has granted Osama bin Laden a pardon for the murder of more than 2,700 Americans in the fall of 2001.

    “This kinda came out of nowhere,” said a White House aide who requested anonymity. “I wouldn’t have put bin Laden on the short list myself. On the other hand, maybe this is the president’s way of finding closure. Because … y’know … he wasn’t actually able to kill bin Laden, or capture him, or even keep him from making all those (expletive) videos. I mean, jeez, let’s face it: Osama bin Laden is basically a one-man Netflix of cave movies.”

    The aide paused, then went on to say, “Can you believe this dude (Bush) was actually president for eight (expletive) years? What were we thinking? Seriously, what the (expletive) were we thinking?”

    The aide began weeping quietly. “May God have mercy on me for my role in the unfathomable travesty that was the Bush administration.”

    Conservative columnist William Kristol insisted the pardon made sense.

    “George W. Bush is a brilliant strategist. I’m sure he has a good reason for this pardon. I’ll figure it out.”

    Kristol sucked his thumb for a few minutes, lost in thought. He was then distracted by a brightly colored piece of string.

    A passerby, told of the bin Laden pardon, offered a possible explanation:

    “Maybe Bush is trying to smoke him out. Wasn’t that the plan?”

  29. I’m just surprised there were not any wholesale pardons for Cheney and others, they must either believe their own lies or have an ironclad agreement they’ll never be prosecuted.

  30. I’m just surprised there were not any wholesale pardons for Cheney and others…

    Is it even possible to pardon someone for a crime they haven’t been charged with yet?

  31. Re: pardons… Come on, this is Bush we’re talking about. Of course he issued many more pardons, but they’re secret, preemptive pardons.

  32. Cheney doesn’t need a pardon. As soon as he finishes shedding his human form he’ll burrow back down to the cthonic realm to receive the Under-King’s standard reward for his subjects who succeed in subverting the human race: The right to deposit a spore-pod in Underqueen #211’s lovely ovipositor.

    Of course, he’ll then have his head chewed off by #211, but such an honor!

  33. “deposit a spore-pod in Underqueen #211’s lovely ovipositor. ” ummm, other way around? that’s why they call it an ovi-POSITOR? Also, the larvae hatch and feed BEFORE the head is chewed off – no evolutionary reason, he just deserves it.

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