An Ambivalent White House Report on Open Government

09.19.11 | 5 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The White House reiterated its support for open government in a new report issued Friday afternoon.  But curiously, the 33-page document on “The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government” (pdf) downplays or overlooks many of the Administration’s principal achievements  in reducing inappropriate secrecy.  At the same time, it fails to acknowledge the major defects of the openness program to date.  And so it presents a muddled picture of the state of open government, while providing a poor guide to future policy.

“At the President’s direction, federal agencies have promoted greater transparency, participation, and collaboration through a number of major initiatives,” the new report says. “The results of those efforts are measurable, and they are substantial. Agencies have disclosed more information in response to FOIA requests; developed and begun to implement comprehensive Open Government plans; made thousands of government data sets publically available; promoted partnerships and leveraged private innovation to improve citizens’ lives; increased federal spending transparency; and declassified information and limited the proliferation of classified information.”

Most of that is true, in varying degrees.  (However, there is no evidence that the proliferation of classified information has in fact been limited; the opposite is the case.)

And yet despite the abundance of itemized detail in the new report, it misses or misrepresents crucial aspects of what has been accomplished and what has not.

Particularly within the domain of national security secrecy, the report leaves out the Obama Administration’s boldest departures from past secrecy policies, suggesting that the White House itself is ambivalent or perhaps remorseful about them.  For example, the report does not mention these groundbreaking measures:

In April 2009, the President broke with prior policy and declassified four Office of Legal Counsel opinions on interrogation and torture that had been tightly held by the previous Administration.  (“OLC Torture Memos Declassified,” Secrecy News, April 17, 2009).  This act finally exposed the purported legal basis for some of the government’s most controversial actions of recent years, and for a while it seemed to promise a new attitude toward the use of secrecy.

In May 2010, the Obama Administration declassified the current size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time ever.  (“Size of Nuclear Stockpile to be Disclosed,” May 3, 2010).  This is a category of information the disclosure of which had been sought without success for more than half a century, and its release created the potential for greater transparency and accountability in nuclear weapons policy.

In May 2011, the President personally ordered the declassification of an excerpt of a 1968 edition of the President’s Daily Brief — over the objections of intelligence agencies.  (“Obama Declassifies Portion of 1968 President’s Daily Brief,” June 3, 2011).  This act alone lent new substance to the otherwise rhetorical statement that “no information may remain classified indefinitely” and prompted a revision of entrenched prejudices concerning secret intelligence records.

For the first time ever, the Administration this year declassified and disclosed the size of the intelligence budget request for the coming year.  (“A New Milestone in Intelligence Budget Disclosure,” February 15, 2011).  In 1998, the Director of Central Intelligence declared under penalty of perjury that disclosure of such information would cause damage to national security.  But in the Obama Administration, that Cold War perspective has finally been abandoned even by the most senior intelligence officials.

These are among the most important changes in national security secrecy that have been accomplished in the Obama Administration.  So it is puzzling and disturbing that in its own “review of the progress the Administration has made” in promoting greater openness, the new report does not mention any of them.  For whatever reason, the White House does not seem to want to take “credit” for these actions, or to remind readers of them.

If the report minimizes the most positive achievements of secrecy reform to date, it also declines to acknowledge the serious failures of the President’s openness initiative.

Thus, it does not mention that during the first full year of the Obama Administration, the number of new national security secrets (or “original classification decisions”) actually increased by 22.6 percent, according to the latest annual report of the Information Security Oversight Office.  (“Transforming Classification, or Not,” May 18, 2011).  Because it does not include such significant adverse data, the White House report more closely approximates a public relations exercise than a candid account of the current status of openness.

The report alludes to new requirements in the President’s 2009 executive order 13256 that dictate “clarified, and stricter, standards for classifying information.”  But it does not mention that the Department of Defense, the largest classifying agency, failed to meet the President’s deadline for issuing implementing guidance for the new executive order.  The upshot is that many of those new requirements are not being fulfilled in practice, more than a year after the President’s order came into effect.  (“Secrecy Reform Stymied by the Pentagon,” February 24, 2011).  By not admitting such problems, the report also misses the opportunity to identify solutions to them.

Nor does the term “state secrets privilege” appear in the new report, although the Administration’s use of the privilege has been an impenetrable barrier to the resolution of many festering disputes on torture, rendition and surveillance.  Can one even speak of open government when individuals who have been victims of torture like Maher Arar and Khaled el-Masri are barred by secrecy from presenting evidence in a court of law or seeking some other lawful remedy?

The White House report demonstrates that the Obama Administration not only wants to be perceived as open, but that it actually has a commitment to open government.  In addition to the precedent-setting breakthroughs noted above, many of the openness initiatives discussed in the report, such as the access to agency information provided through the website Data.gov, are commendable and worthwhile.

But the report also shows that the Administration’s commitment lacks clarity, consistency, and self-confidence.  This makes it harder to build on the most notable and successful achievements of the past few years.

On Tuesday, September 20, President Obama will participate in the launch of the Open Government Partnership, a multi-national effort to foster open government practices around the world.