Open government groups ask President Obama for more transparency


By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE. Fla. — Government transparency advocates are again confronting the Obama administration, this time over a White House memo aimed at filtering Freedom of Information Act requests.

OPEN GOVERNMENT: A bipartisan coalition of 25 nonprofit groups are calling on President Obama to improve government transparency.

The longstanding practice is said to have hindered the free flow of information from federal agencies to the public, and undermined an important open government tool: the FOIA or public records request.

On Monday, a bipartisan coalition of 25 nonprofit organizations called on President Obama for change.

In a letter spearheaded by Cause of Action, a government accountability group, the coalition urged the president directly to “withdraw” a 2009 memo or “provide further guidance” to federal agencies regarding the administration’s internal policy of requiring agencies to consult with White House attorneys before releasing certain document requests.

“Public promises of transparency are no excuse for secret memos that prevent it,” said Dan Epstein, executive director for Cause of Action.

The Craig memo, named for its creator, former White House lawyer Gregory Craig, uses the nebulous phrase “White House equities” to define what information agencies must forward to the president’s lawyers.

The phrase is legally undefined and sidesteps FOIA restrictions, causing administrative confusion, response delays and potentially worse.

“’White House equities’ consultation already delayed the release, and allowed for improper executive branch review of documents to numerous requesters, including members of the media, Congress, and the public,” reported, a letter signatory.

In July, the Society of Professional Journalists, also a signatory, sent its own letter to President Obama with the support of 38 other groups, alleging the “politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies.”

“We consider these restrictions a form of censorship — an attempt to control what the public is allowed to see and hear,” the letter states.

Robert Sanchez, policy director at the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute and former Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Miami Herald, told he isn’t surprised.

“Officials may cite ‘national security’ or ‘public safety’ as a reason to block access to information, and on rare occasions in this age of terrorism, those rationales may be valid,” said Sanchez.

“In far too many cases, however, subsequent events have exposed the unsettling truth: that governmental secrecy is primarily employed to conceal the kinds of waste, corruption and incompetence that might lead to a political backlash, causing the aforementioned officials to lose their grip on power,” Sanchez added.

Cause of Action became aware of the 2009 Craig memo last year, and has sent 20 public records requests to various federal agencies relating to the review of agency records by White House lawyers.

Obama affirmed his commitment to government transparency, saying “this is the most transparent government in history” shortly after winning re-election.

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” reads a White House statement regarding a separate memo for the heads of federal agencies and departments. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.”