Government transparency under Obama misses the mark

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To mark Sunshine Week, open-government groups are assessing President Barack Obama’s pledge to make the federal bureaucracy more open and less secretive. The administration’s grade after nearly 14 months: Needs Improvement.

In a government-wide audit released Monday, for example, the National Security Archive at George Washington University found pending Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests up to 18 years old. Only four of 28 agencies surveyed reported FOIA releases up and denials down since January 2009. Meanwhile, 70 percent of respondents to a poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University described the federal government as being either “very secretive” or “somewhat secretive.”

The Center for Public Integrity’s experience with FOIA under the Obama administration has been mixed at best. After a six-month negotiation with the Department of Health and Human Services that included a lawsuit, the Center was able to get the price of federal health-care data reduced from prohibitive to manageable. The information, to be used in a future project, arrived this month.

The Department of Education was less than cooperative last year when the Center asked for letters of determination in cases of alleged sexual assault on college campuses. It took about six months and another lawsuit for the department to produce the records, and when they arrived, pages – or entire letters – were missing. The department initially refused to acknowledge the Center as a media organization, despite our 20-year history, further slowing down the FOIA process.

And, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. recently balked at providing the Center certain congressional correspondence, but discussions are continuing and it is unclear whether another lengthy FOIA battle looms.

“Freedom of information is about the public’s right to know. The Center for Public Integrity will continue to push hard for public access to data and records,” said Bill Buzenberg, the Center’s Executive Director. “We have a long list of investigative projects that aim to show how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Although the Obama administration is speaking about more openness and transparency, the Center for Public Integrity still needs to see more evidence that agencies throughout the government are acting on that message.”

None of the Center’s current FOIA battles with the Obama administration have rivaled its yearlong attempt to obtain emergency AIDS relief data from former President George W. Bush’s State Department four years ago. At one point, the department sought to charge $300,000. The lengthy fight ended with the Center getting most, but not all, of what it had asked for in a lawsuit. A full accounting is provided here.

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