Obama's transparency questioned as new rules formalize FOIA exemption

In the midst of Sunshine Week, President Barack Obama's administration released a set of rules Tuesday exempting the executive Office of Administration from the purview of the Freedom of Information Act — meaning it can reject public access to its records.

Many analysts are questioning the timing of the new exemptions, as Sunshine Week celebrates government transparency and public records.

“The White House has reversed a decades-long practice of opening the files of O.A. to the public,” said Anne Weismann, interim executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Jonathan Jones, executive director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, expressed concern for the announcement's timing.

“The administration’s decision is unfortunate," Jones said. "That’s a bit of a slap in the face to the open government community, just based on the timing alone."

According to the rules, the Office of Administration, which acts as an advisory body to the president and is overseen by the chief of staff, does not qualify as an executive agency and, therefore, doesn't have to comply with FOIA, due to a 2009 court opinion. 

But David Levine, a law professor at Elon University, said that while the court ruled the office can be exempted, it does not have to be.

Jones said under FOIA, the White House is given an exemption, which leaves the entities that work with it — such as the Office of Administration — up for interpretation. These exempted records are made public five years after the administration leaves.

Obama ran twice on a platform of increasing government transparency, but his administration set a record in the past year for the number of government record requests that were censored or denied, according to a recent analysis by the Associated Press.

The analysis said the administration regularly lost requested files, refused to turn them over in a timely fashion and censored some files if they were made public.

“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Obama wrote in a memo posted about transparency on the White House website. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”

Despite the pledge for increased transparency, exempting the Office of Administration continues a precedent set by former president George W. Bush, whom Obama has criticized for a lack of transparency.

“What the Obama administration has done is formalize what had been an informal practice through most of his administration and part of Bush’s administration,” Jones said.

Levine said Obama’s administration made tremendous efforts to emphasize public information access earlier on in his presidency — through executive orders and other actions, but it has failed to make these efforts recently in areas such as international trade.

“The administration has actually become more secretive than the prior administration in the sense that the earlier memoranda and orders have, in many ways, not been fulfilled,” Levine said.

Weisman said the administration’s commitment to transparency has been made a mockery by these new rules, especially during Sunshine Week.

“The timing of it is almost comical, to the point where it makes you wonder whether they weren’t aware that it was Sunshine Week, or if they didn’t care,” Levine said.


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