Civic Organizations Warn White House on Failing Transparency Legacy

In an unusually strongly worded letter, today Demand Progress and twelve civic organizations warned President Obama that his legacy on transparency issues is in danger. After identifying serious failings on the part of the administration — including its efforts to undermine FOIA legislation, federal spending transparency legislation, and the stalling of its ethics agenda — the organizations issued this warning:

[W]hat troubles us is that it appears your White House team lacks the will and interest to undertake the challenge of this transformative work, and in some instances actively undermined forward progress. Indeed, in some areas that appear well within the administration’s control, there has even been backsliding — for instance, novel uses of the state secrets privilege and the unprecedented number of Espionage Act prosecutions for disclosures to the media.

There is a very real danger that instead of leaving the legacy of transparency that you intended, you risk leaving with a very different legacy: one of betrayed promises. Circumstances may force us to rate your administration as one that failed to fulfill its goals.

In this last year of your presidency, you have the opportunity to revive your legacy for open and transparent government.

The organizations recommended a series of remedial actions that, if taken in concert, may salvage the administration’s reputation. They include:

  • Endorse the FOIA bill that has passed the Senate. (The Administration reportedly recently did so.)
  • Proactively disclose agency visitor logs.
  • Release and declassify the torture report that originated in the Senate.
  • Shed light on our rigged campaign finance system through an Executive Order on federal contractor political spending and other means.
  • Protect whistleblowers (including contractors) in the national security context.
  • Fight to slow down the revolving door.

There is no doubt there still are good people in the administration fighting for open government and transparency. There are many amazing people in the agencies. But they need an ally at the top — one who, even in the waning days of the administration, can set priorities and cut through the bureaucracy.

The president has reminded us in another context that he’s still in office and is still working. Let’s hope he will reengage on open, accountable, and transparency government.

— Written by Daniel Schuman