Advocates Laud Obama's Release Of Documents

President Obama has issued an executive order allowing for the declassification of millions of documents going back to the Cold War and World War II. It was the most decisive move made yet by a president who campaigned on promises he would bring a new era of openness and transparency to the White House.

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One of candidate Barack Obama's earliest promises was to bring a new era of openness and transparency to the White House. Well, now after a year in office and some early battles over records, open government advocates say the new administration is more transparent than its predecessors. And they're especially pleased with an executive order the president issued yesterday. It allows for the declassification of millions of documents going back more than half a century.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: The executive order signed yesterday fulfills a pledge the president made on his first full day in office.

President BARACK OBAMA: Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.

GONYEA: Now, that ringing pronouncement did not bring change overnight. Early requests from government watchdog groups and by journalists for White House visitor logs were turned down. Officials talked about privacy and the president's need to be able to seek counsel and get candid advice. Here's how Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it at the time.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): I think there are obviously occasions in which the president is going to meet privately with advisors on topics that are of great national importance, yes.

GONYEA: But to open government advocates, that sounded all too familiar. This is Melanie Sloan of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in an interview with NPR back in June.

Ms. MELANIE SLOAN (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington): Not only did the administration refuse to provide those records, we've sued them, and they have said that they are making the same arguments that the Bush administration did, that these are presidential records, even though this argument has already lost in court.

GONYEA: There was frustration in Sloan's voice. Ultimately the administration did begin making lists of White House visitors available to the public. And documents from government departments became more accessible. Talk to Sloan today, and her tone has changed.

Ms. SLOAN: We're not in a perfect place today, but we've seen a president and an administration on track making the changes folks in the open government community like to see.

GONYEA: The biggest critics of the White House on transparency these days are Republicans in Congress who have been engaged in a bruising battle with the administration over health care legislation. Recall that during the '08 campaign, Mr. Obama suggested that deliberations over how to reform the system could take place live before TV cameras. Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina say the opposite has occurred.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Well, if we're not shut out, I don't know what more you could do to shut us out. I mean, you know, this whole campaign promise of transparency we would negotiate on CSPAN. There'd be a new way of doing business - has fallen completely apart.

GONYEA: As for this week's executive order, it means that the default position of the federal government is that no document can be considered permanently sealed and that eventually all records will be released to the public. Meredith Fuchs of the National Security Archives, a research institute not affiliated with the government, says she is especially pleased to see the pace of declassification accelerated for many documents that have long being kept secret.

Ms. MEREDITH FUCHS (National Security Archives): It would lead to the release of hundreds of thousands, millions of pages of records related to World War II, the Vietnam War, Korean War. I mean, things that historians are really eager to get their hands on.

GONYEA: Still, even with a major change in the posture of the White House regarding transparency, open government groups say they'll continue to monitor this administration closely for its compliance with the new directives and to do the same with future administrations as well.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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