And the Press Want Their Transparency Too . . .

by on January 30, 2009 · 12 comments

In at least two recent stories, the mainstream press are highlighting Obama administration slow-walking on transparency.

Bloomberg recently filed suit against the Fed under the Freedom of Information Act to force disclosure of securities the central bank is taking as collateral for $1.5 trillion of loans to banks.

“The American taxpayer is entitled to know the risks, costs and methodology associated with the unprecedented government bailout of the U.S. financial industry,” said Matthew Winkler, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, a unit of New York-based Bloomberg LP . . . .

And here’s what President Obama said in his day-one memorandum on FOIA:

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

Politico notes that the Obama team has failed to make financial disclosure information available in electronic form, detailing the cumbersome process of getting access to these public documents from the Office of Government Ethics. It starts with already potentially long delays for legal review and “certification”:

Even then, in order to actually obtain the disclosures, requestors have to print and fill out a form posted on the office’s website. It asks which disclosures are being requested and the requestor’s name, address, phone number, occupation and signature – information the form says can be passed along to law enforcement, congressional offices or private contractors working for the federal government.

Completed forms then have to be faxed to the office. They can’t be e-mailed. And requests for disclosures of officials whose last names begin with “A” through “L” go to one employee, while requests for disclosures of officials whose last names begin with “M” through “Z” go to another.
. . .
They’re not scanned or recorded electronically, though, so requestors have to make arrangements to have the forms mailed or picked up at the agency’s office, where a receptionist dispenses the disclosures after yet another signature – this one on a carbon-paper copy of the original form.

And, to get other technically public disclosure documents such as appointees’ ethics agreements and waivers, requestors have to use different forms and may have to deal with other agencies and their request procedures.

At least the Office of Government Ethics lists the administration officials about whom copies of documents can be ordered on its Web site. That’s a start!

These are run-of-the-mill bureaucratic impediments to transparency, so I don’t count them as Obama administration “steps away from transparency.” But these impediments exist in part because they maintain the obscurity of government bureaucracies and officials, and the freedom of action of these agencies and people vis à vis voters.

The Obama administration will have to root them out and fight them aggressively, or else the early talk of transparency will be mere words.

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