Thoughts and Observations of a Minister

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Friday, January 23, 2009

This is a great first step

WASHINGTON -- Human rights activists and advocates of open government are cheering U.S. President Barack Obama's decisions to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and to signal the start of a new era of clean government by signing strict new rules on transparency and ethics.

His actions on January 21 -- his first full day in office -- overturned policies enacted during the administration of George W. Bush that cloaked the government in secrecy and prevented reporters from obtaining information. Obama declared that his administration is making a "clean break from business as usual."

With a stroke of his pen, the new U.S. president froze the salaries of his top aides, limited the influence of lobbyists, and opened government agencies to public scrutiny.

It was a fulfillment of his campaign promise to change the way Washington operates and make government more accountable to the people.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency," Obama said. "Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know."

'That Era Is Now Over'

Obama's two executive orders and three presidential memorandums reversed controversial policies enacted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, that made it easier for the government to deny requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act and to keep secret the papers and records of former presidents.

...the United States intends to prosecute the ongoing struggle against violence and terrorism, and we are going to do so vigilantly, we are going to do so effectively, and we are going to do so in a manner that is consistent with our values.Obama called the Freedom of Information Act "perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and for holding it accountable." He said he expects members of his administration to carry out not just the letter, but the spirit, of the law.

"For a long time now, there has 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," Obama said. "That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known."

Obama signed the orders in a room filled with his cabinet members and new staff, and told the group that public service is about "advancing the interests of Americans," not themselves.

That philosophy underpinned his decision to eliminate what is known as the "revolving door" in Washington, a lucrative practice rife with conflict-of-interest concerns that involves former government officials working as lobbyists, and former lobbyists working in government.

Obama said he decided to freeze the salaries of his top aides because most Americans have had to make financial sacrifices and his administration should not be exempt from the same hardship.

'Optimistic Start'

Ann Weismann, chief counsel of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility In Government -- a Washington group that promotes ethics and accountability in government -- said Obama has set a clear tone of transparency by taking such sweeping action so quickly.

"We were especially thrilled that he [signed] all of these openness initiatives on his first day of office," Weismann said. "It just really highlights the serious commitment he seems to have and his administration will have towards transparency. So we thought it was an enormously important and optimistic start to the administration."

She said for the past eight years, the Bush administration had thrown up "a blanket of secrecy" around its actions and the work of governmental agencies, and Obama has made a "radical break" with the past.

"There was essentially a presumption of withholding during George W. Bush's administration, his eight years in office. And his attorney general had issued a memorandum that said, 'We'll defend your withholding'," Weismann said. "I think what this is signaling is the complete opposite, which is the presumption of disclosure, and really the burden now is going to be not on the [Freedom of Information Act] requester, but on the agency, in the process, to justify why it needs to withhold something. So I think it's a 180-degree shift."