Nineteen out of 20 cabinet-level agencies under the Obama administration have failed to follow the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act, thereby disobeying the law that demands disclosure of public information.
White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew said in July that the Obama administration “has been the most transparent ever.” But an analysis of government requests filed by Bloomberg News has found an alarming number of transparency violations, particularly when it comes to the taxpayer-funded cost of travel by top officials.
“When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk,’’ Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring the government’s compliance with FOIA requests, told the news agency.
In 2009, the newly sworn in President Obama promised a new standard of transparency that his administration has not upheld – even accepting awards for what he oversaw as “the most transparent administration in history.”
“I will hold myself as president to a new standard of openness… Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” he said while welcoming his senior staff and cabinet secretaries to his office. Two years later, the administration continued to boast about its supposed transparency.
“This president has demonstrated a commitment to transparency and openness that is greater than any administration has shown in the past, and he’s been committed to that since he ran for president and he’s taken a significant number of measures to demonstrate that,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in May 2011, before the president accepted an award for transparency.
But Bloomberg’s report highlights specific instances in which secrecy was a normal part of the regime. Under FOIA, the news agency requested documents from 57 federal agencies regarding taxpayer-funded travel. Only eight of 57 agencies responded within the 20-day timeframe required by the Act. The other agencies are under violation of FOIA for failing to submit the documents on time.
And Eric Newtown, senior advisor at the Knight Foundation, said there should be no excuses.
“In a 24/7 world, it should take two days, it should take two hours,” he said. “If it’s public, it should be just there.”
Bloomberg eventually received documents disclosing fiscal year 2011 travel costs from about half of the agencies, although most came well past the legal deadline.
Travel costs by top Obama officials, including the transportation secretary, energy secretary, environmental protection agency administrator and homeland security chief, remain undisclosed.
The lack of public disclosure regarding travel costs of many cabinet-level top officials has become concerning since the General Services Administration’s inspector general spent $823,000 of taxpayer money on a one-day event in Las Vegas in 2010.
Another one of Bloomberg’s FOIA request also found that federal agencies have increased their use of exemptions to block the release of information under the Obama administration. Cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times during Obama’s first year in office, which is a 50 percent jump from the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency.
“I don’t think the administration has been very good at all on open-government issues,” said Katherine Meyer, a Washington attorney. “The Obama administration is as bad as any of them, and to some extent worse.”