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Obama only slightly more open than Bush thus far

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Obama Administration’s approach to transparency in government is, thus far, only a slight improvement over the Bush Administration’s policies,…

The Obama Administration’s approach to transparency in government is, thus far, only a slight improvement over the Bush Administration’s policies, reports OpenTheGovernment.org in its annual Secrecy Report Card.

The nonpartisan coalition of organizations working to promote open government tracked indicators of openness during the last year of the Bush administration and the first six months of the Obama administration. The findings, including a special section on fiscal transparency, were released on Sept. 8.

“Promising trends began to develop in the last year of the Bush administration, but we have a long way to go to return to the level of government openness and accountability that existed before the September 11 attacks,” said Patrice McDermott, the organization's director, in a release.

OpenTheGovernment.org is cautiously hopeful about the ongoing Open Government Directive, describing the process as “an innovative experiment in soliciting public participation in the policy-making process” through social media. The Obama administration's approach to classified and sensitive information, however, has not been nearly so transparent, the report found.

While the administration's Declassification Policy Forum mirrored the OGD process in many ways, the interagency task force established to review controlled unclassified information conducted its review "largely behind closed doors."

There were more Freedom of Information Act requests processed in 2008 and the backlog of unaswered requests was reduced, the report said. It also noted President Obama's Day One memo on FOIA where he mandated a clear presumption of disclosure and required agencies to take affirmative steps to make information public.

However, the FOIA memo did not provide a framework to review whether agencies were complying with the push for disclosure, the report said. Though some agencies have released previously withheld material after re-reviewing records under the disclosure presumption, OpenTheGovernment.org has classified six ongoing FOIA litigation cases as posing a high risk threat to the Obama administration “successfully living up to its FOIA rhetoric.”

Similar concern exists over the Obama administration's apparent pivot in its approach to the state secrets privilege. Obama campaigned on the promise to regulate the state secrets privilege many assert the Bush administration abused, but his administration has backed the previous administration's position in several cases as recently as June.

“The Obama administration so far has a very mixed record on its promise of unprecedented openness,” said McDermott. “We look forward to working with the administration toward meeting this goal, and will continue to work to make sure the public has the information it needs to hold this administration accountable.”

The Reporters Committee is a member of OpenTheGovernment.org's steering committee.