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Political Notebook

Obama’s mixed signals on openness

AMERICAN LEGENDS HONORED FOR THEIR ARTISTRY - President Obama hugged Robert DeNiro after introducing the Academy Award-winning actor and his fellow Kennedy Center honorees, (from left) writer/director/producer Mel Brooks, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry, and rock superstar Bruce Springsteen at a reception at the White House yesterday before a gala performance at the Kennedy Center. AMERICAN LEGENDS HONORED FOR THEIR ARTISTRY - President Obama hugged Robert DeNiro after introducing the Academy Award-winning actor and his fellow Kennedy Center honorees, (from left) writer/director/producer Mel Brooks, jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, opera singer Grace Bumbry, and rock superstar Bruce Springsteen at a reception at the White House yesterday before a gala performance at the Kennedy Center. (Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters)
Associated Press / December 7, 2009

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It’s hardly the image of transparency the Obama administration wants to project: A workshop on government openness is closed to the public.

The event in Washington today, which is for federal employees, is a fitting symbol of President Obama’s uneven record so far on the Freedom of Information Act, a big part of keeping his campaign promise to make his administration the most transparent ever.

As Obama’s first year in office ends, the government’s record of responding to public and media requests for information doesn’t match up with the president’s words.

“The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails,’’ Obama told government offices on his first full day as president. “The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.’’

Obama scored points on his pledge by requiring the release of detailed information about $787 billion in economic stimulus spending. It’s now available on a website, www.recovery.gov. Other notable disclosures include waivers that the White House has granted from Obama’s conflict-of-interest rules and reports detailing Obama’s and top appointees’ personal finances.

Yet on some important issues, his administration produced information only after government watchdogs and reporters spent weeks or months pressing, in some cases suing.

Those include what cars people were buying using the $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program (it turned out the most frequent trades involved pickups for pickups with only slightly better gas mileage); how many times airplanes have collided with birds (a lot); whether lobbyists and donors meet with the Obama White House (they do); rules about the interrogation of terror suspects (the FBI and CIA disagreed over what was permitted); and who was speaking in private with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (he has close relationships with a cadre of Wall Street executives whose multibillion-dollar companies survived the economic crisis with his help).

The administration has refused to turn over important records. Obama signed a law that let the Pentagon refuse to release photographs showing US troops abusing detainees. And this administration, like the Bush administration before it, has refused to release details about the CIA’s “black site’’ rendition program.

The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t turn over letters and e-mails among FAA officials about reporters’ efforts to learn more about planes that crash into birds.

Just last week, a State Department deputy assistant secretary, Llewellyn Hedgbeth, said at a public conference that “as much as we want to promote transparency,’’ her agency will work just as hard to protect classified materials or information that would put the United States in a bad light.

People who routinely request government records said they don’t see much progress on Obama’s transparency pledge.

“It’s either smoke and mirrors or it was done for the media,’’ said Jeff Stachewicz, founder of Washington-based FOIA Group Inc., which files hundreds of requests every month across the government on behalf of companies, law firms, and news organizations. “This administration, when it wants something done, there are no excuses. You just don’t see a big movement toward transparency.’’

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, said that it filed 45 requests for records since Obama became president and that agencies such as NASA and the Energy Department have been mostly cooperative in the spirit of Obama’s promises. But the FBI and Justice Department? Not so much, said Nate Cardozo, working for the foundation on a project to expose new government surveillance technologies.