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President Obama, shown delivering a speech in Virginia on Monday, promised two years ago to improve government transparency. A new study finds that so far, the administration has a mixed record.
President Obama, shown delivering a speech in Virginia on Monday, promised two years ago to improve government transparency. A new study finds that so far, the administration has a mixed record. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama famously promised to run the most transparent administration in history. This week, security experts are evaluating how well the White House has lived up to that pledge.
It's Sunshine Week, a time of year when lawmakers and good-government groups grade the administration's commitment to openness.
There's a simple reason why public access to government information matters, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli told an audience filled with federal workers Monday.
"You've often heard it said that sunlight is the best disinfectant," Perrelli said. "And the recognition is that, for us to do better, it's critically important for the public to know what we're doing."
Scholars and privacy experts agree. But they have some doubts about how well the administration has fulfilled its commitment.
Steven Aftergood directs the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. He also writes a popular blog on secrecy issues.
"Expectations were raised so high at the beginning of the administration that some disappointment was almost inevitable," Aftergood said in an interview.
Aftergood said the Obama administration has made some huge breakthroughs, such as sharing for the first time the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.
"On the other hand, though, we still have continuing backlogs," he said. "We have obstruction. We have a lack of cooperation or commitment or even implementation of explicit instructions from the president."
A new Knight Open Government Survey by the National Security Archive found about half of 90 government agencies have changed their approach to sharing information since Obama promoted the idea on his first day in office. That means half still haven't gotten with the program.
Last month, Republican Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois asked an inspector general to investigate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She found out that HUD and Treasury had asked lobbyists to sign nondisclosure agreements if they wanted to take part in talks about rental housing.
A spokesman for HUD told NPR that the federal government was only trying to get the best information and protect trade secrets of banks and housing authorities involved in the talks. The nondisclosures were first reported by Politico.
NPR obtained the agreements and a response from Acting Inspector General Michael Stephens. He said the practice didn't seem to violate government sunshine laws. Stephens wrote that another law, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, "could become an issue," if the administration went beyond looking for input and sought formal guidance from the participants.
Aftergood, who studies government secrecy, has some qualms about the meetings and the nondisclosure pacts.
"When you shut the doors and you allow some outsiders in but not others, you inevitably skew the process," he said. "So it's not good government, it's not good policy, and it just seems like a mistake."
Another source told NPR that the Justice Department's civil rights unit has been asking companies under investigation to sign nondisclosure agreements, too.
People who sign the agreements promise to protect the confidentiality of the government's legal theories and analysis. The source said they also promise to tell the Justice Department before sharing information with Congress.
The Justice Department said it's in the middle of negotiations with several companies. And while those talks continue, they need to keep their thinking quiet.
If and when those cases settle, though, a department spokeswoman said that all of that information will come out into the sunshine.