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FOIA panelists say Obama has far to go in transparency

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  1. Freedom of Information
Despite President Barack Obama’s promise for more transparency in government, the administration has a long way to go, according to…

Despite President Barack Obama’s promise for more transparency in government, the administration has a long way to go, according to experts at a open government conference held in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

An estimated 100 journalists, watchdog group employees, media lawyers and government representatives attended the day-long "Transparency in the Obama Administration" conference hosted by the American University Washington College of Law.

Panelists said much of the issue regarding transparency involved the culture within government agencies, not the goals and policies set forth by the president. However, the administration’s failure to enforce agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and other policies, such as the Open Government National Action Plan — a plan to expand transparency and improve FOIA through technology and public participation — does raise concerns, panelists said.

“Yes, they have made modest reforms around the edges, but on the big questions, it’s hard to see how they’ve staked out any ground different than their predecessors,” said Michael Isikoff, national investigative correspondent at NBC New and a panelist.

Franklin Reeder, senior Obama/Biden transition team member and former director of the White House Office of Administration, said the fact that the Obama administration issued a memorandum concerning transparency on the president’s first day in office signified its importance to the administration.

Amy Fuller Bennett, assistant director at OpenTheGovernment.org said she agreed that Obama's National Action Plan was a bold move and more far-reaching than open government advocates had expected. Still, she said, the policies and plans are “playing around” the system — a FOIA system many panelists said is not working.

“I don’t think you’ll find a reporter in Washington that thinks FOIA is an effective reporting tool,” said Fred Schulte, senior reporter for iWatch News at the Center for Public Integrity.

Many journalists often find the issues concerning FOIA requests hinder their ability to perform investigative work for stories.

Newspapers are forced to “pry information” from the government, said panelist Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The costs associated with this, particularly legal costs, she said, are making many news organizations “gun shy” to petition the government for information.

“They’re checking things out when they perceive there is an issue, and they are still being shut down,” Dalglish said. “On a local level, what this means is they have stopped making requests.”

Panelists said it costs the government more to classify, protect and then later declassify information, than it would to practice transparency.

“What I don’t understand is some of this stuff would not be expensive to release,” Dalglish said. “What I don’t understand is how the Obama directive has not filtered down.”

FOIA requests are often backlogged because the system is understaffed and has no power to force agencies to release data in a timely manner, according to Bennett.

“I can say from my perspective and our perspective as journalists, there’s been some sort of spasmodic response [to FOIA requests],” said Josh Gerstein, White House reporter at Politico. “To wait a month, a year, five years for a request — you’re actually talking about whether this is useful to us at all.”

Many agencies are reluctant to release information to reporters, particularly where the records relate to national security or military issues. Journalists often face greater difficulty when trying to cover stories relating to military commissions and tribunals, Gerstein said.

Reporters also have difficulty navigating more readily available information provided by government agencies. The White House visitor logs contain missing or partial information, according to Schulte. Missing information includes event descriptions and arrival times. Guests of the family, which can include performers and overnight guests, are not included in the logs.

Isikoff said though the logs were incomplete, he found them helpful for stories, however “it took a hell of a lot of work to navigate them.”

The logs could provide useful information to journalists who would like to monitor White House visitors leading up to the passage of important legislation, such as in the area of healthcare; however, Schulte said often persons have to be requested by name in order for the White House to provide information.

“The bottom line is you can’t figure out who was at a specific meeting and why they were there,” Schulte said. “They say ‘We’ll provide you with information about people,’ but when you don’t know who to ask for, it’s a Catch-22.”

Lisa Ellman, senior counsel in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said the Obama administration was continuing to improve FOIA compliance and that non-compliance to FOIA is part of “an ingrained agency culture” the administration is trying to overcome.

“We all know that the process to opening the government is a work in progress, however, it requires a state of commitment,” Ellman said. “The open government directive is working to improve the lives of everyday people more efficiently, more effectively.”