Like Bush, Obama White House Chooses Secrecy for Key Office

Like George Bush, President Barack Obama?s White House says its key support office is exempt from federal disclosure law.

President Obama's recent about-face to fight the release of photographs purportedly showing detainee abuse met with sharp protests from watchdogs and open-government advocates.

But it's not the first time the White House has acted at the expense of Obama's promise to run "the most transparent and accountable government in history."

A sweeping new Obama administration openness policy doesn't apply to a key White House office that supports most of Obama's key staff and advisers, administration officials confirm. Rather, the Obama White House has opted to retain a Bush-era policy that blocks information about those operations from public release.

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Just weeks after taking office, the Obama administration adopted an unprecedented policy of sunlight, directing bureaucrats across government to "apply a presumption of openness" regarding the release of documents to the public, according to a memo by Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder.

But in keeping with his predecessor's position, Obama's policy does not cover an important part of the White House: the Office of Administration, which oversees much of the day-to-day functions of the president's own office and staff.

In 2007, then-president George W. Bush, whose penchant for secrecy was a reliable villain in Obama's campaign speeches, became the first president to declare the White House Office of Administration off-limits to public inquiries. At the time, Bush was engaged in a heated court battle with good government groups over access to information about a massive batch of missing White House e-mails.

A federal court ruled in favor of the Bush administration, agreeing that the office was not technically an "agency" as defined by FOIA, and was not required to abide by the openness law.

Today, the Obama White House Web site announces that the Office of Administration "is not subject to FOIA and related authorities." And that's just not good enough, say government watchdogs.

Watchdogs Call for More Openness

"If the president is talking about establishing an 'unprecedented' level of transparency, it seems like at a minimum he should be reverting to the pre-Bush practice of honoring the FOIA within a key White House component," said David Sobel, a lawyer who runs a government accountability project at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "That's not even unprecedented, that's just getting back to what had been the norm."

Steven Aftergood, who runs the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed, noting that he'd also like to see Obama reverse a Clinton administration decision to exempt the White House National Security Council from FOIA, a stance Bush maintained and Obama has shown no inclination to reverse.

Sobel says the 2007 court ruling hardly forces the White House to disregard FOIA requests to the Office of Administration, and called such an argument "disingenuous." Obama, he said, has already embraced "discretionary" releases of information – releasing documents, even if the law doesn't force them to – such as the so-called "torture memos," once-secret documents written over the past several years by officials in Bush's Justice Department.

Asked why the Obama White House chose to stick with a Bush-era legal interpretation that favored secrecy to openness, White House spokesman Nick Shapiro responded with a written statement.

"The Administration has already taken steps to restore a new level of accountability and transparency to government," Shapiro wrote, "and we are reviewing ways to continue to increase transparency."

Obama's position on openness for his own operations stands in contrast with his campaign rhetoric. On the trail, Obama promised "[the] Most Transparent and Accountable Administration in History," as his communications staff put it.

"More and more, the real business of our democracy isn't done in town halls or public meetings or even in the open halls of Congress," he told an Iowa audience in 2007. "Decisions are made in closed-door meetings, or with the silent stroke of the President's pen, or because some lobbyist got some Congressman to slip his pet project into a bill during the dead of night. We have to take the blinders off the White House."

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