Obama's openness falling short of campaign promise 

He won an award for making government more transparent, but President Obama is nowhere near keeping his pledge to "usher in a new era of open government," according to government watchdogs.

Obama rode into office two years ago as a self-proclaimed reformer, vowing to kick down the walls of secrecy that defined George W. Bush's presidency.

Since then, the president made White House visitor logs public and ordered government agencies to publish information more frequently online. But analysts say the administration's actions have yet to back up the president's flowery campaign rhetoric on openness.

"There is too much work left to be done to be handing out awards," said Steven Aftergood, a transparency advocate who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Government Secrecy Project. "Secrecy continues to be a problem, particularly the use of state secrets privilege to halt litigation on controversial topics. Efforts to use the [Freedom of Information] Act are frustrated by delays, incomplete disclosure and a frequent lack of response."

Despite such perceived shortcomings, Obama was scheduled to receive an award Wednesday for increasing transparency in government. The award ceremony was going to be open only to a few reporters, though it was the only event the president had Wednesday that wasn't closed entirely to the press. Just minutes before the ceremony was to begin, however, the White House announced it was canceled.

The only reason given for the cancellation was a vague "due to changes in the president's schedule." The White House didn't reveal what those changes were.

Prior to the cancellation, White House press secretary Jay Carney defended Obama's transparency initiatives.

"What I will not concede is that his record on the issue is anything but exemplary," Carney said.

However, a new George Washington University survey found that only about half of the federal agencies changed their Freedom of Information Act procedures to meet Obama's new standards.

An analysis by the Associated Press found that there were more than 544,000 information requests last year at the 35 largest agencies, about 40,000 more than the year before. Despite the increase, the Obama administration responded to nearly 12,4000 fewer requests last year.

Viewed through the prism of Obama's predecessor, though, watchdog groups do see improvements.

Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, ordered administration officials to withhold requested documents if there was "a sound legal basis" for rejecting a request. In comparison, Janet Reno, President Bill Clinton's attorney general, said records should be blocked solely if the "disclosure would be harmful."

Since taking office, Obama also has learned that there are times when a president doesn't want to be so open with the public.

When State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley criticized the detention of an Army private accused of leaking classified information to WikiLeaks, he was forced to resign.

Federal prosecutors have filed charges in five cases involving the leaking of classified information. They are also considering charges against the private, Bradley Manning, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

"The policies Obama outlined have yet to take root," said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "At best, this administration is marginally more transparent than the previous administration."


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Brian Hughes

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