Journalism in the Public Interest

Has Obama Kept His Open-Government Pledge?

In his first term, President Obama promised that government would “do business in the light of day,” but skeptics say the record is mixed.

Four years ago, President Obama promised more transparency in government. We take a look at how he did on keeping his promise and what to expect during his second term. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

After eight years of tightened access to government records under the Bush administration, open-government advocates were hopeful when Barack Obama promised greater transparency.

Four years later, did the president keep his promise?

"It's a mixed bag," said Patrice McDermott, executive director of, a consortium of right-to-know groups. "I think they've made progress, but a whole lot more remains to be done."

The Obama administration set the bar high. In his first inaugural address, Obama said that "those of us who manage the public's dollars" will "do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government."

The next day, the president issued two memos. In one on the Freedom of Information Act, he wrote that FOIA "should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

A second memo addressed transparency: "My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government." And that "openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government."

But transparency was not defined in detail, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). "People were left to imagine whatever they wanted to be the content of those statements. Inevitably, disappointment soon followed."

Next came more memos and directives, including a memo from Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging federal agencies to release discretionary information and a White House directive outlining an open-government to-do list for agencies.

Among the assigned tasks:

  • Make data available online
  • Create an open-government website
  • Create a FOIA point person within the agency
  • Devise a plan on how the agency will become transparent

In early 2010, ProPublica tracked how well agencies followed up. Some agencies missed key deadlines. Others did not complete all tasks.

Two months ago, the National Security Archive found that "66 of 99 federal agencies" never updated their FOIA regulations even though Holder ordered them to make changes in a March 19, 2009, memorandum.

"It takes somebody beating up on the chief FOIA officer and the head of the agency to make sure the message is being heeded all through the agency, " McDermott said. "And they haven't done that."

But all has not been dark and cloudy. The secrecy veil is beginning to lift in some areas.

Last year, the White House released its visitor logs, and Obama signed legislation that provided greater protection for government whistleblowers.

Citizens can get more information about government spending than they could have previously through websites such as and

The administration also created as a repository of federal data. A December 2009 White House memo directed agencies to make "high-value" data sets available on the site. Although was criticized for its lack of usability and the selection of data, it now has more than 350,000 data sets from agencies.

Another website,, tracks data about how agencies respond to FOIA requests for records and provides tools to help citizens make requests and track for information.

"We know more today than ever before about intelligence spending," Aftergood said, citing bright spots. "And we know more today than before about the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal." (Estimates put the U.S. stockpile at just more than 5,000 in 2012, according to an FAS report.)

Some basics also have changed. Many agencies employ simple, yet helpful practices such as communicating with FOIA requesters and giving them ways to check the status of their requests. Some agencies have posted contact information for their FOIA offices and other personnel on their websites.

Still, many requesters say they continue to face delays and costly processing fees. Although government data show that agency FOIA backlogs are significantly lower than in 2008, the figures for 2011 show an increase from the two prior years. An analysis by Bloomberg News last fall found that 19 out of 20 cabinet-level agencies failed to properly fulfill FOIA requests.

"Other areas are like duck feet paddling beneath the surface," McDermott said. "You may not see them, but they are moving."

In fiscal year 2011, agencies processed 8 percent more FOIA requests even though the number of incoming requests went up. And now, more than 40 years since the passage of FOIA, government employees who process requests have an actual job category — "government information specialist."

Obama's second inaugural address contained no mention of transparency, however, and no memos or directives have called for a more open government. That leaves some to wonder if the commitment to transparency continues.

According to White House spokesman Eric Schultz, it does. "While creating a more open government requires sustained effort," he said, "our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people."

"Reducing secrecy and improving transparency are still compelling ideas that are good for reducing costs, improving efficiency and engaging the public in a constructive way," Aftergood said. "Those of us who do advocacy in that area shouldn't be disappointed. We should get to work."

More transparency coverage:

• FOIA Eyes Only: How Buried Statutes Are Keeping Information Secret
• Government Could Hide Existence of Records under FOIA Rule Proposal

And yet, Obama argued with Romney on national television who would protect more secrets.  The ACLU can’t get the State Department to declassify diplomatic cables that have been published by WikiLeaks.  It hasn’t been a year since the government punted on prosecuting Thomas Drake to prevent J. William Leonard from going on the record on how absurd overclassification has gotten.

Oh, right, and it still takes extraordinary pressure to learn whether a law enforcement agency is allowed to fly drones in a given area, or who we’re killing with drones.

That’s not to mention the avoidance on topics like biometric collection, what rules the TSA actually operates under, or how many people have been warrantlessly wiretapped under the FISA Amendments that get signed back into law without any substantial debate.

So, yes, there have been steps forward, but not very many, and they’ve also moved the goal posts so that the steps are less relevant.

Like everything else, empty words.

John: Spot on… And what efforts have been made with this administration can be undone in a nanosecond by the next.

While Propublica stays true to protecting this President I contend transparency remains only a dream by we the people. It was not an intention of this President. Transparency with regards to Benghazi would go along way or is the Benghazi attack a political hot potato for Obama. Transparency depends on upsetting the political if it smells like sh*t on him then keep it secret.

I take this column pretty much as a fluff piece considering the treatment of banks,ratings agencies,  mortgage lenders, the Iraq mega-embassy, and the total opacity of the health care bill.

Jacquelyn Judd

Feb. 11, 2013, 8:59 p.m.

Yes, indeed, this is a fluff piece. When I saw the title, I laughed out loud. Secrecy is the name of the game in this administration, and it’s getting worse, not better. This inanity is enough to make me unsubscribe from ProPublica.

Very disappointing.  Whistleblowers?  This administration has prosecuted more whsitleblowers than any other..  The only person prosecuted for torture was the whistleblower.  I am unsubscribing.

More fluff from the Obama support team. Just more fake journalism from a defunct press. Porpublica and the Obama asmin. must be loving this article. I can see the directive to his legions in the press. ” Just make it appear to be investigating, and keep it congratulatory at the same time”. Very similar to North Korea and Mother Russia.
So sad. So sad. The press has been neutered. And the US public is spoon fed this type of dribble all day long.

From the above, it’s clear that the other readers get it. A very disappointing piece of “journalism.”

I’ll just add from one short excerpt:
“Obama signed legislation that provided greater protection for government whistleblowers.”

Try telling that to Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou, or the family of Aaron Swartz. These people are heroes. They don’t deserve to be dead or in jail. They were attempting to protect America from illegal abuses of government.

Obama’s presidency is SHAMEFUL. Republicans = Democrats. NO DIFFERENCE.

James M. Fitzsimmons

Feb. 12, 2013, 11:08 a.m.

Even more distressing than the Administration’s lack of candor about the terrorist operation in Benghazi on 9/11 2012 is the mainstream media’s unabashed lack of objective inquiry into this failure and related stonewalling. In addition, the hypocrisy of this administration and its media sycophants in connection with drone operations as compared to the Bush administration enhanced interrogations is breathtaking but also enlightening. Our media sets forth a narrative that is very much influenced by its left leaning political ideology. As concerned citizens we need to keep this in mind when we try to be informed otherwise we are simply being manipulated.

Transparency is going to be a Bit difficult since President Obama’s Campaign Manager “James A Johnson Perseus LLC” and the Wall street
Fiasco with come into some conflict, not one of the Wall street Thieves has been Picked up nor do i think they will! Mr Johnson is a member in good standing i do believe, A very powerful Organization with long arms and deep Pockets Plus

Jeff, Your link peaked my interest. I read the Wikipedia entry. In the Wikipedia entry I spotted Perseus, LLC I suspect that LLC and its funds may, could present a can of interesting worms. A Soros fund? Based in Washington D.C. environmental, healthcare and such makes one wonder just how many on the hill have money in these funds managed by Perseus? Not that I am trying to suggest illegality perhaps something bordering on ethics or perhaps not.

I still am an Obama supporter, not because I agree with him in every matter but because I believe he is trying to accomplish a lot, Bush 43 left the President with a lot to do in a short time. and those defecit’s and budget issues seem to affect everything in the Obama presidency.  I want a much more transperent gov’t from the Obama administration.  I, too, have gottten frustrated with the lack of effort in this regard but as one of the commentator’s pointed out as to the Obama administration’s transperency ” it is a mixed bag.”  We should remember that, for it does take time to unclassify or declassify even the simplest records. In short, continue to demand more transperancy from the Obama administration while supporting the President, wherever and whenever you can.  By both dissent and agreement we have the chance to accomplish quite a bit in the next 4 years!!

Kevan: I also like Obama and hope along with you that we can accomplish quite a bit in the next four years. I also know that positions many of us take in both supporting Obama and maintaining relentless pressure to increase transparency is based on our knowledge that other administrations will follow.

When we imagine the specter of another Bush/Cheney duo, most of us would like the precedent of transparency well established into practice, the sooner the better.

pgillenw did you catch the “Fannie may” thing? well no one who is someone can get in so deep and then get out of the way so as to be completely transparent, although i have heard nothing in the press about
Mr Johnson nor anything concerning his dealings! The Obama Administration is not going to touch this one, even if it is far away from Wall street and out of site, i just heard today President Obama make statements concerning Transportation infrastructure concerning the movement of American Products around the country (TPP?)  and his Transportation Man Mr Kirk, My goodness what a spectacular thing Government is fun to watch Remember, one more thing before i go

I am not a conspiracy theorist, This is just the way “We” Humans are

Carolyn, Not much else can be said.  You pretty much said it all in your last post.  Thanks!

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