On February 14, 2013, former President Obama declared that it would be his goal to make his presidency “the most transparent administration in history,” in theory allowing the public and the press access to previously unseen or unpublished information and permitting citizens and watchdog groups to have unfettered entrée to reams of valuable government data. Unfortunately, this promise turned out to be mostly hype, as one can see by looking at the facts.
Not only was the Obama administration one of the least transparent administrations in modern history, it was one of the most obstructive, giving those who requested information either nothing or censored files for 77 percent of all requests in the last year of the former president’s term in office (the figure was 65 percent for his first year).
Normally, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), anyone can request the government to turn over copies of any federal documents as long as their distribution won’t harm national security, expose business secrets or violate personal privacy. Costs for copies of such documents are supposed to be either minimal or free.
For the second year in a row last year, however, the Obama administration set a record for the number of times searchers were told nothing could be found when requests were submitted, and records were also set for denials of documents that were known to exist. In at least one-third of the cases, the government acknowledged it was wrong to refuse to turn over the documents either in whole or in part — the highest rate for such cases in six years.
In cases where documents were turned over, payments were often mandatory, even in instances where people had asked the government to waive all fees. Documents were also censored more on national security grounds than under any other president in history.
In cases where the government refused to turn over documents, a huge number of lawsuits were filed in the last four years by organizations such as the Associated Press (AP), the New York Times and the Center for Public Integrity, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
In total, the government received 788,769 requests for documents last year and spent $478 million fulfilling them, employing 4,263 full-time FOIA personnel in more than 100 agencies and federal departments in the process. In 2015, the government employed even more people — 4,405 such personnel — to handle requests.
In 2015, AP sued the State Department for access to Hillary Clinton’s files during her tenure as Secretary of State. The lawsuit was finally settled this month, and AP will be receiving $150,546 from the State Department to cover some of its legal fees.
AP also has lawsuits outstanding over the FBI’s decision to have an agent impersonate a journalist during a recent investigation and the non-disclosure of who assisted the FBI with accessing the San Bernardino mass shooter’s iPhone (and how much the agency paid to have it hacked).
In total, the Obama administration spent $36.2 million fighting FOIA request lawsuits in the last year of his presidency with just three government departments accounting for more than half that amount — the Department of Justice (DOJ)’s legal battles accounted for some $12 million, the Pentagon accounted for $4.8 million and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) accounted for about $6.3 million.
The administration also prosecuted more whistleblowers for revealing information than all previous presidencies combined. It’s been widely acknowledged that these numbers are proof of the Obama administration’s intent to obstruct the normal process of gathering supposedly public information.
When questioned about the figures, a spokesman for the former president had no comment. But conspicuously quiet during Obama’s terms in office were watchdog groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Project on Government Oversight and Public Citizen, which had made much noise during the administration of George W. Bush whenever Bush officials ordered press and FOIA requests for information obstructed or government documents redacted.
As it turns out, there was a reason for this silence. Obama had appointed one of his classmates from Harvard Law School, a lawyer named Norm Rosen, to be an “ethics czar” who would hold semi-regular meetings at the White House regarding access to documents.
Representatives from these watchdog organizations would be invited to these meetings, but if they ever became testy about denials for requests of government information, they were threatened with being “disinvited” to their White House gatherings with Rosen, and so, their future access to other documents might be in question.
The strategy was extremely effective in keeping these groups quiet regarding the Obama administration’s stonewalling. It even became a joke when one group wanted to give the president an award for the White House’s newfound “transparency,” but Obama refused to accept the award in public or even list the acceptance of it on his official calendar.
~ American Liberty Report