MARCH 16, 2010
Government agencies keep finding excuses to keep an alarming number of public records secret as President Obama sits idly watching his promise of unprecedented transparency repeatedly mocked.
The commander-in-chief’s open-government guarantee has turned out to be a big joke that has actually led to more secrecy than under the Bush Administration. Federal agencies have increasingly used “legal exemptions” to withhold information that should probably be made public, according to an analysis conducted by a national news organization.
The probe examined public records requests from more than a dozen federal agencies—including the Federal Reserve Board, Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security, Transportation and Treasury—during a two-year period to compare statistics from the Bush and Obama administrations.
In Obama’s first year in office, major government agencies abused legitimate exemptions to withhold information tens of thousands of times more often than during George W. Bush’s final year, according to the findings. The federal agencies rejected public records requests 312,683 times in 2008—Bush’s last year—compared to 466,872 in 2009, Obama’s first in the White House.
The most common exemption cited is one that lets the government hide records that detail “internal decision-making.” Because this particular excuse can be vague, broad and downright bogus, Obama specifically ordered agencies to cease using it so frequently and the Justice Department followed up by reminding agencies that disclosing such records is “fully consistent with the purpose” of a federal law intended to keep government accountable to the public.
Statistics prove that the executive directive and Justice Department order have been widely ignored because it’s the most frequently used excuse by government officials who deny public records requests. Major agencies cited that particular exemption at least 70,779 times during 2009 compared to 47,395 during Bush’s final year.
A couple of examples involve the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency refused to provide records involving incidents of collisions between airplanes and birds as well as records related to its approval of a controversial publicity stunt involving an Air Force One flyover of New York City that cause panic among residents.
Evidently, Obama’s pledge to provide Americans with “transparency like you’ve never seen before” has instead turned out to be a level of government secrecy never before seen.
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