Obama Orders Rollback of Bush Secrecy on 1st Day

January 22, 2009

President Barack Obama signalled that open access to information will be a top priority for his administration on January 21, 2009, his first full day in office.

Obama issued two memos to all executive agencies and one executive order at a Wednesday session open to reporters and cabinet members — all reversing Bush-era secrecy directives.

One of the memos ordered agencies who process FOIA requests to err on the side of disclosure when they had discretion to do so. This reverses the infamous "Ashcroft Memo" of 2001, which encouraged agencies to withhold information from the public whenever they had the option to do so. SEJ was one of dozens of journalism groups that had called for an end to this policy.

Die-hard Bush-Cheney loyalists had tried to codify the Ashcroft-Memo doctrine at the Energy Department in the final days of the administration. SEJ had urged DOE not to do so. The final decision will be left to the Obama administration.

The Justice Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget must draw up legal language for government-wide guidelines to implement Obama's directive. Obama set no deadline for issuing the guidelines, but specified that they must be published in the Federal Register.

A second memo to agencies was a mandate to increase the openness of government information using modern digital technology. While substantial progress was made during the Bush years, the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996 remains unimplemented to a significant degree.

That memo ordered OMB, the Chief Technology Officer, and the General Services Administration to draw up an "Open Government Directive" within 120 days to apply to almost all executive agencies.

The "Open Government" initiative revived a concept that had been widely abandoned during the Bush administration — once called "public participation."

"Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities toparticipate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information," Obama said in his January 21 memo.

The third item issued January 21 was an executive order on the handling of presidential records. It revoked Bush's Executive Order 13233 of November 1, 2001, in which he claimed authority to prevent disclosure of presidential records in certain circumstances.

Obama reversed that with a new executive order [as yet unnumbered] that establishes procedures for working out claims of executive privilege by incumbent and former presidents. The new procedures give more sway to the Archivist of the United States.

Bush's assertion of secrecy over the records of his White House continued up until the final hours of his administration.

Even after a federal court ordered Bush to preserve e-mails the White House had falsely claimed were "missing," the administration vowed not to obey the court order. Courts had also upheld Vice President Cheney's claim to be exempt from presidential records disclosure law. Obama's Jan. 21 Executive Order explicitly includes Vice Presidential records.

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