A Face-to-Face with the President about Transparency
by Gary Bass*, 3/29/2011
Yesterday, I had a once-in-a-career opportunity – to discuss transparency in the Oval Office with the President of the United States.
In the 28 years that I've advocated for open government at OMB Watch, this is the first time I've heard of such a meeting. The same goes for my companions at the meeting: Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive, Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org.
The purpose of the meeting was to present President Obama with an award recognizing his deep commitment to transparency. This is not a claim we make lightly. Between us, we have decades of experience advocating for government openness over the span of several administrations, often as critics. At the midpoint of President Obama's term, we can say that his commitment to open government is truly extraordinary.
That's not to say we're happy with every action taken under the Obama administration; we're not. We've got a long way to go to reach the point where government is consistently delivering the openness that the American people deserve. However, it's important to remember how far we've come in a little more than two years – and to acknowledge it.
The first statement posted on the Obama White House blog was a commitment to making this the most open and transparent administration in history. Since then, the administration has taken several ambitious steps towards that goal. The highlights include the Open Government Directive, disclosing White House visitor logs, reforming the systems of classified and controlled unclassified information, restoring the presumption of openness to the Freedom of Information Act process and emphasizing affirmative disclosure, and supporting the rights of journalists and whistleblowers.
And those are just the highlights. As we describe in our assessment released during Sunshine Week, the administration has begun to tackle a formidable number of the open government community's top concerns. To be sure, there have been some stumbles. The state secrets privilege remains a heavily used and unaccountable tool of secrecy. There have been an unprecedented number of investigations and prosecutions of leaks. And, despite efforts from the administration, whistleblower protections stalled in Congress last year. Moreover, implementation of some of the ambitious policy objectives still have a ways to go.
But all in all, this administration has changed the debate about government openness. The question is no longer whether to be open, but how.
Although we've seen that commitment for the past two years, it was great to hear President Obama reiterate it face-to-face – and for him to tell us that he still wants to do more to be the most open and transparent president ever. We'll need that resolve as we move forward to further address critical transparency issues such as modernizing FOIA, narrowing state secrets claims, and ensuring fair treatment of those who expose wrongdoing. After our meeting with the president, we met with top White House staff to discuss those and other issues, and we're hopeful that more progress will be made.
I left the meeting energized. With your support, we'll continue to work with the administration – through criticism as well as cooperation – to ensure its commitment to transparency is fully realized.