President Barack Obama's policies on secrecy get higher grades for openness than those of President George W. Bush, yet there's still room for improvement, says a coalition of public interest groups.
In a report issued Tuesday, the coalition says the new administration has made major strides toward more disclosure, including the recent release of Justice Department memos on Bush administration interrogation policies and Obama's embrace of greater openness under the Freedom of Information Act.
The report noted, however, that the government has resisted release of photos from Army interrogation investigations; has not backed away from occasional use of the state secrets privilege; and has argued in court for secrecy regarding the role of former Vice President Dick Cheney in the Valerie Plame affair.
The country elected a president who promises the most open, transparent and accountable executive branch in history and "the record to date is mixed," says the report by OpenTheGovernment.org, a group of 75 public interest groups.
'Controlled unclassified information'
Open government advocates are concerned that much of the Obama administration's review of disclosure issues is taking place in secret.
For example, an interagency government task force is delving into the issue of unclassified information that the government nonetheless keeps under wraps by designating it as "controlled unclassified information," or CUI.
The task force set up by the Obama administration has conducted its review largely behind closed doors, and there is little indication of the substance of the final set of recommendations that will be given to the president, says the report.
The report was written before Friday's news that the administration will start posting the names of White House visitors, widely hailed by supporters of full disclosure as a significant step. It was a policy reversal from the Bush administration, which had gone to court to keep the names secret.
Obama's action concerning visitors is "a key transparency test," Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said Monday. McDermott said the White House should reach back to inauguration day and post the names of all visitors since then. Obama's plan calls for the release of names of visitors beginning Sept. 15.
Agency decision-making has shown signs of greater openness.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed a decision by the Bush administration that had reduced reporting of toxic pollution for more than 3,500 facilities nationwide.
Among the positions the coalition thinks the Obama administration needs to change are:
- Its argument, citing the state secrets privilege, that the government has sovereign immunity in seeking dismissal of a lawsuit against the government for warrantless wiretapping. Under the state secrets privilege, the executive branch claims that the disclosure of certain evidence in court may damage national security.
- Its position that a transcript of a federal prosecutor's interview of Cheney in the release of Plame's CIA identity should remain secret for as long as 10 more years to limit the use of the transcript to historical purposes.
- The coalition's report also covers the final year of the Bush administration, noting some modest signs of improvement on the issue of government secrecy. The number of pages of newly classified material declined from 37.2 million in 2007 to 31.4 million last year.