For all his 2008 campaign promises of hope and change, President Barack Obama has done little to change the culture of secrecy in the federal government.
A recent study shows that the Obama administration may, in fact, have a worse record on transparency than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. That's something akin to visiting a psychiatrist and finding out you're a bigger sociopath than Tony Soprano.
An examination of lawsuits filed to pry records from recalcitrant federal bureaucrats shows that requesters had to go to court after being denied access more times during Obama's first term than they did during Bush's last.
When the last two years of Obama's first term are compared to the first two years of Bush's second, the jump in Freedom of Information Act lawsuits is 28 percent, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
That's hardly the type of change for which any of us had hoped.
One of the cornerstones of Obama's 2008 campaign was his promise to reverse the secrecy that Bush, and especially his vice president, Dick Cheney, seemed to enforce with iron fists. (Does anyone besides me remember Cheney's all-out effort to keep the records of his pre-9/11 energy task force secret? I have always wondered how many times the words Iraqi oil appear in the documents.)
We had every reason to think that Obama would reverse course on secrecy. But he and
What is especially troubling is that the bulk of the increase in lawsuits falls in the realm of national security -- the very place where Obama promised the most tangible difference from Bush and Cheney.
Some of the suits are obvious leftovers from the previous administration, as TRAC noted in its study, meaning the underlying requests were filed before Obama took office. Still FOIA lawsuits -- a requester's only recourse when an agency denies access -- have soared by 111 percent at the State Department (which raises the question of how transparent Hillary Clinton would be as president), 50 percent at Justice, 43 percent at the CIA, 22 percent at Defense and 15 percent at Homeland Security, the study shows.
In 2011, the Obama administration was sued over FOIA rejections 385 times. That's only two fewer suits than the highest number of Bush's presidency, 387 in 2005, according to TRAC.
In 2008, Obama was quoted accusing Bush of "turning our tradition of free information upside down" by telling agencies to "presume citizens are not entitled to information unless they are willing to sue for it."
Bush left many messes. FOIA compliance is one Obama hasn't cleaned up.
In fairness to Obama, he has endured more baseless attacks and demagoguery -- he's a Muslim, he was born in Kenya or Indonesia, he's arrogant and callow -- than any president in history, much of it fueled, in my opinion, by blatant racism. Despite that, he has proved he can get things done. But he's largely failed on FOIA reform to the detriment of the better democracy he promised.
I'm certainly not suggesting that his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney, would have somehow achieved a better record. He was poor at transparency as a governor, and his private-sector career was one immersed in the immensely secretive culture of hedge funds. It seems certain that Romney wouldn't have administered an open government.
But neither has the man who won in November. Obama has failed to fulfill his 2008 campaign promises to reduce the secrecy of the federal government. Here's hoping that changes during his second term.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches a class on Public Records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at Tpeele@bayareanewsgroup.com and follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.