Obama's open-government initiative: Why is it failing?

Military analysis.
April 26 2011 5:03 PM

File Under: Failure

How did Obama's effort to make government more transparent go so wrong?

President Obama seen through arms carrying paperwork. Click image to expand.
President Obama

On his first day in office, President Obama issued a memo to all federal agencies, ordering them to release more classified documents to the public. When considering requests under the Freedom of Information Act, it read, a "presumption of disclosure" should govern all decisions. The same should be true when deciding whether to classify documents to begin with. "In the face of doubt,"Obama declared, "openness prevails."

So, more than two years later, how's that going?

Compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose standing order was literally "When in doubt, classify," things are going great. Compared with Obama's own standards and expectations, not so much.

Beginnings were auspicious. In that same first-day memo, Obama instructed Attorney General Eric Holder to set new guidelines on classification procedures by the end of the year. Holder assembled a task force, which published an executive order on Dec. 29, 2009.

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Then came the bureaucratic grind. The executive order required all agencies to issue implementing regulations by the end of 2010. Yet, according to a report published this month by the Information Security Oversight Office, fewer than half the agencies—19 out of 41—have done even that much. Even among those that met the procedural deadline, few have done anything of substance—that is, few have slowed down their rate of classifying new documents or speeded up their rate of declassifying old ones.

According to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog, federal agencies made 220,734 decisions to classify documents in 2010—a 22.6 percent increase over the year before. As for opening the records of the past, the National Declassification Center has a backlog of documents totaling 400 million pages. Most of them have been cleared by the agency where they originated, mainly the Defense Department. But there's a hang-up owing to a concept called "agency equity."

"Agency equity" is the Purgatory of FOIA-land. In many cases, the originating agency—say the Pentagon, the State Department, or the Department of Energy—will approve the declassification of an old secret document. But if the document contains any material that came from the Central Intelligence Agency, then the CIA has "equity" in that document and, therefore, can choose to weigh in on the decision to release. And the CIA is notoriously obstructionist.

For instance, every year, the State Department releases a set of volumes called Foreign Relations of the United States, consisting of once-classified documents that shed light on events of 30 years earlier. In 1990, State's historians were putting together the volume on the 1953 Iran coup—when the chairman of its advisory committee, Warren Cohen, a history professor at the University of Michigan, noticed that it contained nothing about the CIA's role in the coup. This was because the CIA refused to declassify its documents—and State relented. Cohen resigned in protest.

The State Department is now preparing a revision of the Iran volume, but the CIA is still obstructing. This is the case even though the official CIA history of the coup, known as the Wilber Report, was long ago made public through a press leak. The CIA's position is that it's still classified, and to acknowledge a leak so officially would set a bad precedent. State's position is that if they publish a revision that still doesn't mention the CIA's role, the whole series—and the State Department historian's office—would lose credibility.

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