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Murky Report For W.H. Transparency

On his first full day as president, Barack Obama promised to usher in “a new era of openness in our government.”

Then last month, the White House asked government workers to submit suggestions for greater openness — through a website inaccessible to the public.

That’s a bit like Obama’s transparency push, eight weeks into his presidency — lots of major promises and some fairly significant actions, mixed in with a few flat-out dodges.

It’s left open-government advocates grateful for what they’re getting from Obama — who is, in their view, miles ahead of the Bush administration — but also left some feeling let down that his often lawyerly actions are falling short of his soaring words.

“What the president said on his first day in office was obviously promising and positive, but there comes a point — I don’t think that we’re there yet, but we’re getting close — where you have to ask whether the reality matches the rhetoric,” David Sobel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said during a conference on transparency last week at American University.

Others are more approving. “I think they deserve enormous credit for how far they have gotten,” said Gary Bass of OMB Watch. “They have made remarkable progress. ... I can nitpick a lot of things, but is it remarkably different than Bush? Absolutely.”

Ironically, White House officials did not respond to questions about the transparency drive or the request for openness suggestions.

Here’s an interim report card on the Obama administration’s early transparency efforts, with POLITICO’s grades:

Exposing Bush’s war-on-terror policies

Critics of President George W. Bush cheered earlier this month when Obama’s Justice Department put out a handful of long-sought memos, including the legal rationale behind Bush’s decision to imprison war-on-terror suspects indefinitely.

However, the real legal crown jewels from Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel remain under wraps: memos justifying warrantless wiretapping and interrogation techniques that some view as torture.

The Obama administration also seems to be in no hurry to release security-related records that might disrupt its own plans. One report on released Guantanamo detainees who allegedly returned to fight was expected to come out last month — but never surfaced, notes Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff.

Publishing that report could complicate Obama’s attempt to close Guantanamo and farm out many of the detainees to other countries.

“It’s easy to release stuff that makes your predecessor look bad,” Isikoff said at the AU meeting. “The real test of openness of an administration is when you’re willing to release material that might not let you look good.”


Peering inside the White House

Officials made several early moves in the right direction, such as putting more detail in the public version of the president’s daily schedule. However, information on who is meeting other officials is released less consistently, if at all.

No other administration has offered that degree of transparency, but, again, Obama set a very high bar. “The White House is the people’s house, and the people have a right to know who visits,” his campaign promised.

Ethics waivers have also been haphazardly released rather than systematically disclosed. And there’s still no move to post officials’ financial disclosures online. The Sunlight Foundation calls that “just inexcusable.”

Also, Sobel said he’s gotten no response to letters asking the White House about privacy-invading cookies on its website or how records from Obama’s BlackBerry-like PDA will be preserved.


Follow the money — stimulus

The promise to use the Internt to disclose every dollar spent on the $787 billion stimulus package became a mantra of Obama’s campaign for the bill.

Now, and individual agency websites are starting to post some data. Outside groups say the sites are off to a good start. “They have built the doorway, and we’re standing at the threshold of the doorway. We now need to get through it,” Bass said.

However, House Oversight Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said last week he had “major concerns ... that is currently not a usable database.” He and others said it’s not clear the site has the ability to trace all the money through to the final point where it is spent.


Follow the money — bailout

The numbers are eye-popping — trillions in spending and loan guarantees, all intended to save the financial sector from collapse. But very little about who got how much is public.

News outlets like Bloomberg and Fox Business Channel have sued for lists of bailout recipients and details on collateral. Treasury and the Federal Reserve are both stonewalling, citing the commercial interests of banks. Meanwhile, there is little public data on whether banks are hoarding the money or lending it.

“I think the public has every reason to be outraged. ... It’s like a black hole,” Bass said. “The Obama administration has done little to correct that.”


Re-invigorating the Freedom of Information Act

On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder returned to the Clinton-era policy that the Justice Department will defend FOIA lawsuits only when it expects some real harm will flow from disclosure. “An agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally,” Holder wrote.

Some were upset Justice wouldn’t agree to put the FOIA suits on hold while the new standards were issued. “We’re not asking them now, seven weeks after taking office, to make substantive decisions rolling back decisions made by the Bush administration. We’re just asking them to hold off,” Sobel said before Holder’s memo went out.

Holder says his new guidance “should be taken into account” in pending cases but stops short of promising a review of all pending suits. The memo also does little to reduce the biggest problem in FOIA: backlogs and delays.


Regulating in public

Not a lot of regulation making is going on right now, since Obama suspended that process. However, an active debate is under way about how new regulations should be analyzed.

A Web page that has been set up for public submissions on that subject is not the easiest thing to find but also has info about lobbying on that process. Still, there doesn’t seem to be an online home yet for information on meetings with regulated industries like the banks, financial firms and automakers who are in so much trouble.


Press freedom and access

Obama and Holder are both on the record supporting a shield law to help journalists avoid testifying in court. Under Bush, the Justice Department opposed a shield law.

However, there are no signs yet that Justice is letting up in criminal leak investigations that have gone after the sources of journalists like James Risen of The New York Times. “As far as I know, they’re still going. No one has called the dogs off,” said Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

White House reporters also detect no brave new era of openness. “I’d love to tell you my experiences are ‘night and day;’ they’re not. It’s ‘dark and dark,’” Isikoff said. “When you ask them tough questions — when you suggest you’re writing a story that might not be the kind of thing they’re interested in putting out there— they’re n more open, they’re no more happy to engage than previous administrations.”