OMB Watch Commends Obama Administration for Open Government Memos, Urges Strong Follow-Through

WASHINGTON, Jan. 21, 2009—OMB Watch today commended the Obama administration for making government openness and transparency one of its top priorities. In its first full day in office, the administration issued memos directing agencies to adhere to principles of openness and transparency and instructing the Attorney General to issue new guidelines on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that embody the spirit of open government.

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Groups Seek More Congressional Transparency

The Sunlight Foundation recently launched the Open Senate Project as part of its ongoing attempt to improve congressional transparency. The project is a bipartisan initiative to study the Senate's current information sharing practices and subsequently develop recommendations for improvement, particularly through the use of technology.

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Project Makes Transparency Recommendations for Next President

More than 100 groups and individuals from across the country have been working collaboratively to develop recommendations for the next president on how best to improve federal government transparency. The effort, the 21st Century Right to Know project, was organized by OMB Watch, and it involves organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum. A draft set of recommendations is now available for review and endorsement.

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Senate and House Take Legislative Swings at Secrecy

The Senate introduced new legislation that would make it more difficult for the executive branch to establish secret policies. This effort followed the House's passage of legislation to reduce overuse of classification by security agencies.

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FBI to Increase Secret Powers in the Near Future

The Department of Justice (DOJ) plans to finalize secret changes to a secret rule that sets guidelines for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) work. The changes will reportedly lower intelligence-gathering standards and could pose a significant threat to individual rights. Several senators have voiced strong concerns about the changes.

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Senate Report Documents Problems with State Secrets Privilege

An Aug. 1 report by the Senate Judiciary Committee articulates the need for new legislation to limit the state secrets privilege. The report documents that the current administration has asserted the privilege "more frequently and broadly than before" and that reforms, such as the State Secrets Protection Act (S. 2533), are necessary to restore the proper balance between the right to an open and accountable government and the protection of legitimate state secrets. The report's dissenters — nearly all the Republicans on the committee — disagree with the report, arguing that existing procedures are sufficient.

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State Secrets Problems are No Secret to Congress

On July 31, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony concerning the State Secrets Protection Act (H.R. 5607), sponsored by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), which would grant the judiciary greater authority to question executive branch secrecy. The act would establish a set of procedures and standards for assessing executive branch claims to the state secrets privilege.

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House Decides Saving E-mails is a Good Thing

The White House has threatened to veto an already weak bill targeted at preserving electronic records, despite legal action and recommendations from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the need for such accountability. On July 9, the House passed the Electronic Communications Preservation Act (H.R. 5811) by a veto-proof margin of 286-137. While targeted at the White House, this legislation will have an impact throughout executive branch agencies.

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FOIA Another Year Older, but Still Not Much Wiser

July 4 marked the 42nd anniversary of Congress' passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report showing improvements in how the law is being implemented, including a reduction in backlogs of FOIA requests at agencies. Other reports, however, paint a much starker picture where backlogs continue to remain high (despite a one-year modest drop) and where the full granting of FOIA requests has dropped to the lowest level since records have been kept.

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Senate Vote on FISA Compromise Expected

Now back from the July 4 recess, the Senate is expected to quickly take up the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) compromise passed by the House in June, with a vote as early as July 9. Despite opposition to the compromise legislation, particularly from civil libertarians, and a recent court ruling that cast doubt on the main arguments for granting immunity to telecommunications companies, the legislation is considered likely to pass.

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