.News Update 1/23/09

President Obama Declares A New Era of Openness

January 23, 2009

In his first days as President of the United States, Barack Obama set forth a new agenda for openness and transparency in government. As one of his first acts, President Obama issued a new policy for compliance with the Freedom of Information Act by federal agencies, as well as a statement on Transparency and Open Government. He also signed a new executive order rescinding President Bush's executive order imposing increased restrictions on public access to presidential records.

At his swearing-in ceremony on January 20, President Obama told reporters that change was coming to Washington with regards to government secrecy. He said, "For a long time now there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands not on the side of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) promotes federal accountability through transparency. This law ensures public access to government records, ensuring that citizens and the press may stay informed about government activities. An informed citizenry is a vital component of our democratic system of government. President Obama remarked about the importance of keeping the presidency in touch with our nation's founding principles. He said, "Let me say it as simply as I can. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

President Obama's dedication to openness promises likely progress on such goals as a nuclear weapons-free world. The Obama policy should prevent delays in obtaining information, such as those experienced during Bush Administration by Citizen Action New Mexico and Nuclear Watch New Mexico. Both filed FOIA requests for the Department of Energy Ten-Year Site Plans, which resulted in litigation in federal court. The court found that the Ten-Year Site Plans were wrongfully denied or redacted. The appeals process took years before the NGOs received the requested plans.

When the people hold the government accountable for its actions, real change is possible. In his memorandum concerning the Freedom of Information Act, Obama stressed that, "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."

Obama's actions on his first day in office show a strong commitment to openness and transparency in government. On that day, he said he was "inspired by the sight of Americans as far as the eye could see. They were there because they believe this is a moment of great change in America, a time for reinvigorating our democracy and remaking our country. They've entrusted all of us with a great responsibility. And so today I'd like to talk with you about our responsibility to keep that trust."

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