Obama delivers mixed results on transparency promises

Under the administration of President George W. Bush, many Americans were concerned that Washington was becoming more and more secretive and inaccessible to the common citizens of our republic.

With secret meetings, secret prisons, back room deals, warrantless wiretapping, and the passage of large, mostly unread bills like The Patriot Act and the TARP “bailout” bill, the Federal government just didn’t seem very transparent.

Enter Pelosi’s Democratically-controlled Congress in 2006, followed by Mr. Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and the now-familiar refrains of “Hope” and “Change” resounded through the nation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised us the most ethical, transparent Congress ever, while President Obama pledged an “unprecedented level of openness” in Washington.

Have the Democrats made good on their promises?

In one of his most famous campaign promises, Obama told the American people he would “publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.”

He broke this transparency promise right off the bat when he signed the Lily Ledbetter Act, then again and again with SCHIP and the “Stimulus Package.”

Since then, the original promise has been completely ignored and repeatedly broken. There’s just no telling why more journalists haven’t taken the President to task for this.

His administration has also blocked the release of photos depicting prisoner abuse by American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, insisted that White House visitor logs are exempt from mandatory release under the Freedom of Information Act, and continually invoked the state secrets privilege in cases involving alleged CIA torture.

Meanwhile, Speaker Pelosi’s Democratic Congress has been riddled with multiple ethics investigations and she’s offered the American people such gems as “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”

When Pelosi said this, she was referring to the hotly-contested health care reform bill, which prompted House Minority Leader John Boehner to famously exclaim on the House floor:

“Look at how this bill was written. Can you say it was done openly? With transparency and accountability? Without backroom deals and struck behind closed doors hidden from the people? Hell no you can’t!”

But things haven’t been all bad. That’s why one watchdog group, OpenTheGovernment.org, has given President Obama mixed results in its 2010 Secrecy Report Card.

The number of people, for instance, who have the authority to classify information as secret or top secret has declined by 37% in one year to 2,557 people- the lowest level in 17 years.

There’s also been a 40% drop in the backlog of Freedom of Information requests needing to be processed and a 41% decrease in the number of “national security letters” which federal investigators use to secretly demand information without a warrant.

All in all, there has certainly been marked progress in some areas of Federal transparency, but perhaps not nearly enough to meet the demands of a public who were told to expect a lot more.