Groups ask Obama to reverse policies restricting access to information

Transparency advocates are upset by Bush administration orders that give agencies more reasons to withhold documents from the public.

Government transparency groups are pressing President-elect Barack Obama to reverse a pair of Bush administration orders they argue hamper the public's right to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Officials at the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch said they could meet with transition team members as early as next week. They believe Obama has demonstrated his commitment to open government by posting transition-related information at, and by adding a "Your Seat at the Table" section, under which proceedings of meetings and documents shared between Obama's aides and outside groups are posted online and available for comment.

Over the last eight years, the federal government has become less open and less accountable, CDT Vice President Ari Schwartz said Tuesday.

FOIA requests have been granted at a dropping rate and agencies are taking advantage of exemptions to withhold documents, he said.

The catalyst was a 2001 memo by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructing agencies to withhold information by using such exemptions if an argument could be made to do so.

The order reversed a policy in place since 1993 when then-Attorney General Janet Reno directed agencies to disclose information unless it resulted in "foreseeable harm." A 2002 memo from former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, which focused on the development of weapons of mass destruction, created a category of "sensitive but unclassified" information to be withheld.

OMB Watch founder Gary Bass said reversing such policies is "totally consistent with the way the Obama team has operated."

Bass joined with more than 200 other individuals and organizations to submit a 112-page "right-to-know" agenda to the transition team last month.

"We want agencies to have a proactive, affirmative responsibility to disseminate," he said, adding, "FOIA requests should become the vehicle of last resort, not first resort."

Overturning the Card memo could be a "Day 1 activity" for Obama, Bass said, adding that the policy implemented by Ashcroft would require action by the new attorney general. That, he said, could easily occur in the first 100 days of the administration.

In March, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced a bill to add transparency and accountability standards when Congress considers adding new FOIA exemptions to the law.

The bill, which has stalled, would require Congress to state its intention to provide for statutory FOIA exemptions in legislation.

The bill followed Bush's signing of a Leahy-Cornyn e-government bill that made the first changes to FOIA in more than a decade.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who has introduced legislation to speed up FOIA request processing, said Tuesday the Bush administration's policies have been "an affront to open, democratic government."

"The 'foreseeable harm' standard served this country quite well before John Ashcroft became attorney general," he said. With respect to the Card memo, he believes policymakers must be careful to ensure that no information is released that is potentially useful to those trying to construct WMDs.