Liberty Commentary

Freedom of Information: Open, closed

by Mark Silva

obama_pinocchioThe Obama administration is holding a workshop today on open goverment.

It’s closed to the public and press.

The workshop is being held by the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy for the public liasons at federal agencies who field requests for records filed under the Freedom of Information Act. The administration, vowing greater “transparency” about government actions, is outlining procedures for working with a new U.S. Office of Government Information Services, set up to resolve disputes over information requests.

“If they’re getting marching orders, why shouldn’t the public be there?” asks Jeff Stachewicz, founder of the Washington-based FOIA Group Inc., which files hundreds of requests each month on behalf of companies, law firms and news organizations.

“We’d like to know, when they’re training agencies, are they telling them the same thing they’re saying in public, that they’re committed to making the Freedom of Information Act work well and make sure that agencies are releasing information whenever possible while protecting important issues like individual privacy and national security,” said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative.

Melanie Ann Pustay, the official running the conference, says she wanted government employees to be able to speak candidly, and the conference is being held in an auditorium at the Commerce Department, where a government ID is required for admittance. The press, however, is routinely admitted to government buildings.

Pustay promises to say the same things at the workshop that she would say publicly, and is seeking to improve how the government responds to information requests, which cost roughly $400 million each year to handle.

As Obama’s first year in office ends, his record on issues surrounding the Freedom of Information Act — one of the principle mechanisms that citizens use to request information — is uneven so far, the Associated Press reports today, in noting the closed-door conference on open government.

“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 told government offices on his first full day as president.

Just last week, a State Department deputy assistant secretary, Llewellyn Hedgbeth, said at a public conference that “as much as we want to promote transparency,” her agency will protect classified materials that put the United States in a bad light.