Encouraging More Early Actions

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Encouraged by several openness and transparency steps taken by the Obama – Biden transition team, the Center for Democracy & Technology and OMB Watch, both Sunlight grantees, are calling on the new administration to go further and reverse a pair of Bush Administration orders that restrict the public’s right to know under the Freedom of Information Act.

Andrew Noyes at Congress Daily (subscription required, but you can see read it here free thanks to GovernmentExecutive.com) reports that the two groups are impressed by the transition team’s posting transition-related information at Change.gov, and by adding a “Your Seat at the Table” section, where proceedings of meetings and documents shared between Obama’s aides and outside groups are posted online and available for comment.

Open government advocates like CDT and OMB Watch are more than eager to reverse eight opaque years of unaccountability by the Bush Administration, which used executive privilege, hyper classification under the aegis of national security, and stonewalling to further secrecy. “The catalyst was a 2001 memo by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructing agencies to withhold information by using such exemptions if an argument could be made to do so,” Noyes writes. In 2002, Andrew Card, then the then White House chief of staff, issued a memo creating a category of “sensitive but unclassified” information to be withheld.

Noyes quotes Gary Bass, OMB Watch director, as saying the reversal of such policies is “totally consistent with the way the Obama team has operated.” Over 200 individuals and other organizations joined OMB Watch in issuing a “right-to-know” agenda to the transition team last month. Asserting that agencies should have a proactive, affirmative responsibility to disseminate, Bass said, “FOIA requests should become the vehicle of last resort, not first resort.”

Noyes notes that efforts are afoot in Congress too that would strengthen FOIA, such as Sens. Pat Leahy and John Cornyn’s Open FOIA Act. Last New Years Eve, Bush did sign Open Government Act of 2007, the first FOIA reform in a decade was to set up an independent FOIA ombudsman. But subsequent maneuvers by the Bush Administration “neutered” the law.

We expect the Obama-Biden Administration takes CDT and OMB Watch’s counsel. The incoming administration is giving us hopeful and positive signs.

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