Let There Be Light

How President Obama should reopen our government

Over many years, Americans have come to embrace the idea that democracy suffers when the work of government is excessively secret—the people are shut out, corruption and cynicism thrive, and accountability wanes. Yet President Bush and Vice President Cheney have run an administration in which the executive’s lust for power outstripped the public’s right to know. One of the most troubling aspects of Bush’s campaign against government transparency was the ease of its advance. Battles were won with brief memos, unilateral executive orders, and signal flags from on high.

Here is an arena in which President Obama can forcefully demonstrate, as he indicated on the campaign trail, that he will turn the lights back on in the White House. Some steps would be relatively easy. The president should:

  • Instruct the attorney general to restore the presumption that exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act are designed to prevent “foreseeable harm,” rather than to be used as expandable excuses to deny requests.

  • Issue an executive order restoring the intent of the Presidential Records Act, making the government the owner and executor of past presidents’ papers, rather than a mere custodian for as long as an ex-executive or his heirs want certain documents under wraps.

  • In his first budget, restore, as Congress intended, the Office of Government Information Services to the National Archives and Records Administration, and remove it from the Justice Department, where conflicts of interest on transparency abound.

Other steps will be more challenging. Modernizing the government’s information procedures will require effort beyond undoing the excesses; it will require making the government’s information policy anew. To that end, Obama should:

  • Get a handle on “pseudo-secrecy”—the wholesale marking of documents with secret-ish labels outside of the official classification system—by reducing its use, establishing a system for appeals of such labels, and forbidding their use in FOIA decisions.

  • Revise outsourcing contracts to ensure that records generated by private companies doing government business will be treated like any agency-generated document.

  • Make it clear that government scientists, experts, and researchers have a right to express their knowledge and opinions to the press, the scientific community, and policymakers.

  • Encourage the development of systems that proactively release government information, and build databases so they can be accessed and adapted by innovators outside government.

Finally, we come to the vast opaque effort to revive the economy. With so much taxpayer money at stake, Obama should:

  • Require full disclosure of all bailout funds, including collateral posted in exchange for access to the expanded lending programs.

  • Ensure that federal regulators ban all off-balance sheet activity—completely. All financial transactions should be included in publicly filed financial statements. Until this happens, investors, the public, and the press will not have the information they need even to ask questions about the activities of financial institutions and other corporate actors.

The National Security Archive, the Sunshine in Government Initiative, and the 21st Century Right to Know Project have produced thoughtful recommendations for the next president and Congress, which we’ve drawn on in compiling this list. The rest of their proposals are online and deserve a good look.

Meanwhile, we are posting this editorial on CJR.org, and inviting readers to add their own thoughts to it. We will then send the document on to the Obama administration. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.