Dear President Obama: It’s Sunshine Week, You Promised a New Era of Transparency, but We’re Still Waiting

March 17, 2015 Updated: March 17, 2015

Dear President Obama, 

Happy Sunshine Week! How are you going to celebrate it? I plan to celebrate it by filing a bunch of Freedom of Information Act requests. I call it the joy of FOIA, because it rhymes. As president, you must not have the opportunity to file FOIAs. You would already have the inside skinny, am I right? But what you can do is make it easier for the rest of your fellow citizens to learn what our shared government is doing.

One of the very first things you did as president, on Jan. 21, 2009, was announce a new era of transparency. You wrote, “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.” Thank you, Mr. President.

But here we are six years later, after you won both of your elections, and what do I hear on March 16?

“The Office of Administration (OA), whose sole function is to provide common administrative support and services to all units within the Executive Office of the President, is not subject to FOIA and any related legislation.”

That seems like a sad way to open Sunshine Week. You know what’s sadder? That the list of executive office units you say are exempt from FOIA is exactly twice as long as the list of units you say are subject to it.

And Mr. President, I am just a humble journalist. But I think the entities your administration says should be exempt to protect national security, probably have some stuff the public needs to understand.

Here’s the list:

White House Office
Office of Administration
Office of the Vice President
Council of Economic Advisers
National Security Council
Office of Policy Development
Domestic Policy Council
Office of National AIDS Policy
National Economic Council
President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board

Really? All of those should be exempt from open records requests?

You know how 4-year-olds have a “Why?” phase, in which every question leads to a why? This list has that effect on me.

It was 2007 when the George W. Bush administration started a policy of not having the Office of Administration respond to FOIA requests. The office administers White House emails, and there were questions about how the administration discussed the war in Iraq, about Valerie Plame, about the Justice Department, about lots of things. People thought when you issued that 2009 memorandum about transparency that you planned to reverse the Bush-era policy. On Monday you expanded it. Why?

So those fascinating Bush-era emails remain hidden from the public. Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s fascinating emails from her time as Secretary of State are not yet revealed. There is outrage, there is hand wringing, but here’s the essence for me. These records are our history. We need it. All of us are responsible for good government, and that is not a game of blind man’s bluff.

Shine a light, Mr. President. You almost have two years to keep that transparency promise. 

Respectfully Yours,
Mary Silver


P.S. Here’s a link from the Poynter Institute that explains how to file an open records request. Basically, you just ask, say you want it in digital form, and assume it’s going to be free.