FAS

President Obama Declares “A New Era of Openness”

01.22.09 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In a breathtaking series of statements and executive actions, President Barack Obama yesterday announced “the beginning of a new era of openness in our country.”

“For a long time now there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” he told reporters at a January 21 swearing-in ceremony.

“The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed” (a paraphrase of the October 2001 policy statement of former Attorney General John Ashcroft).  “That era is now over.”

“Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known,” President Obama said.

Moreover, “I will also hold myself, as president, to a new standard of openness…. Information will not be withheld just because I say so.  It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well-grounded in the Constitution.”

“Let me say it as simply as I can.  Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

Accordingly, the President issued several new policy statements.  A new policy on Freedom of Information directed that “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” and called for the Attorney General to develop new FOIA guidelines reflecting that principle.  A broader statement on Transparency and Open Government directed agencies to “harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public,” and ordered preparation of recommendations for an Open Government Directive.  A new executive order rescinded an order issued by former President Bush that imposed increased restrictions on public access to presidential records.

The whole package gained immense force from the fact that it was presented on the President’s first full day in office.  (By comparison, the Clinton and Bush Administrations did not get around to addressing FOIA policy until October of their first year in office.)  The actions closely tracked the recommendations of openness advocates, and they represented a personal commitment to openness and accountability that goes far beyond what any previous President has dared to offer.

Inevitably, several caveats are in order.  A “presumption of disclosure” really only applies to records that are potentially subject to discretionary release, which is a finite subset of secret government information.  Vast realms of information are sequestered behind classification barriers or statutory protections that remain unaffected by the new policy statements.  “In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” the President said.  But throughout the government secrecy system, there is not a lot of doubt or soul-searching about the application of secrecy.

For example, last week Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr., the director of the ODNI Intelligence Staff, denied a FOIA request for declassification and release of the 2006 intelligence budget total, even though the 2007 and 2008 budget numbers have already been officially disclosed (Secrecy News, January 14).  According to ODNI, the 2006 number is still classified, and its disclosure would compromise intelligence sources and methods.  The problem here is not that doubt mistakenly yielded to secrecy instead of disclosure.  The problem is that General Burgess and his colleagues cling to an obsolete and counterproductive classification framework.

Unfortunately President Obama’s new directives do not yet encompass the needed overhaul of the national security classification system.  That may have to wait another day or two.

publications
See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
Blog
New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship: Creative Perspectives on Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence 

To empower new voices to start their career in nuclear weapons studies, the Federation of American Scientists launched the New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship. Here’s what our inaugural cohort accomplished.

11.28.23 | 3 min read
read more
Science Policy
Article
Expected Utility Forecasting for Science Funding

Common frameworks for evaluating proposals leave this utility function implicit, often evaluating aspects of risk, uncertainty, and potential value independently and qualitatively.

11.20.23 | 11 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Report
Nuclear Notebook: Nuclear Weapons Sharing, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

11.17.23 | 1 min read
read more
Social Innovation
Blog
Community School Approach Reaches High of 60%, Reports Latest Pulse Panel

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year.

11.17.23 | 4 min read
read more