Opening government

Our view: President Obama's order that agencies release more information is welcome

January 23, 2009

For most of the last eight years, the Bush administration worked hard to keep the business of government behind closed doors and off limits to the public. Now, President Barack Obama has wasted little time in rejecting this sinister passion for secrecy, ordering staff and agencies to consider government documents open and available to citizens. It's a bias toward openness that every American favoring greater government accountability should cheer.

The Obama administration has a lot of work ahead, implementing policies to end the Bush era of secrecy. Mr. Obama's directive to examine Freedom of Information Act requests with more regard for public access is but one. Open government advocates should trust the new president but hold him to account on these goals in the coming months and years.

Mr. Obama's pledge was spelled out in a series of executive orders and memorandums that also will bar presidential appointees from seeking lobbying jobs while he is president and ban gifts from lobbyists to anyone in the administration. He also loosened restrictions on the release of records related to former presidents and vice presidents, a decision that should give historians and researchers access to documents they have been denied since 2001.

The lobbying limits are considerably broader than those imposed by other presidents - and justifiably so. White House staffers and other top government officials have increasingly traveled through the revolving door between powerful private institutions and government agencies - traffic that has undermined confidence in the government's duty to serve the public first and foremost. The president's FOIA decision reverses a 2001order from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who told agencies he would defend any legal justification for withholding documents. By 2006, as a result of that obstructionist policy, two in five FOIA requests were left unprocessed, and the Justice Department's rate of granting document requests had fallen to 70 percent.

If information is the oxygen of democracy, the Bush administration was choking off the supply. President Obama has rightly recognized that a more informed public can lead to greater participation in government.

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