Holder Boasts of Transparency, but Studies Find Government Still Too Secretive

Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the Obama administration has "delivered" on its promise to make government more transparent, but a new study released the same day concludes the Obama adminisitration is "falling short" of its promise.

"This past year has brought a shift in the way our entire federal government operates," Holder said as he commemorated "National Sunshine Week," which celebrates open government and freedom of information. "It's also signaled the emergence of a government that's striving to work more openly and more effectively for the people it serves."

In January 2009, on his first full day in office, President Obama issued an executive order promising a "new standard of openness," and two months later Holder, picked by President Obama to lead that effort, issued a government-wide memorandum "ordering a change in the way we approach, release and disseminate information," as Holder put it Monday.

"I asked that we make openness the default, not the exception," Holder told a crowd gathered inside the Justice Department.

But only "a minority" of federal agencies have responded to those actions with "concrete changes," according to a new report by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

In addition, a new poll released Sunday by The American Society of News Editors found many Americans are skeptical that big changes have been made in the past year.

In the poll, 38 percent said the Obama administration engages in "about the same amount of secrecy" as its predecessors, 34 percent said the Obama administration engages in less secrecy than its predecessors, and 22 percent said it engages in more secrecy than its predecessors, according a report by the Scripps Howard News Service, which helped conduct the poll for The American Society of News Editors.

Still, Holder insisted on Monday that progress is being made, citing what he called "an obvious and encouraging change in our government's attitude toward information."

Specifically, he said a "disturbing trend" under the Bush administration, which saw a reduction in government disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act, has been "completely reversed."

In 2009, the Justice Department released 1,000 requested documents more than the Bush Administration did the year before, Holder said.

In fact, the National Security Archive study mentioned the Justice Department as one of only four federal agencies to increase the number of pages released under the Freedom of Information Act. The Department of Agriculture, Office of Management and Budget and Small Business Administration also increased their output, the study said.

"Five agencies actually raised red flags by releasing less and withholding more than they did last year," said the report, citing the Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office.

The National Security Archive study, which looked at Freedom of Information Act requests fulfilled by U.S. agencies, found that those agencies each reacted differently to the Obama administration's directives for more transparency.

Some "implemented concrete changes," some "have made changes in staff training," others "merely circulated and discussed" the memos issued by Holder, and more than one-third reported having no records demonstrating changes made, the study said.

The National Security Archive's General Counsel, Meredith Fuchs, said the Obama administration still has a lot of work to do.

"One year is too early to render a final judgment on how far President Obama can move the government toward openness, but this audit finds that much more pressure and leadership will be necessary, both inside and outside the government," Fuchs said in a statement.

Holder acknowledged there's still work to be done, but he said the administration has made strides.

"While we aren't where we need to be just yet, we're certainly on the right path," he said. "We must keep up this work. ... I believe we can fulfill our duties to the American people in bold, effective and historic ways. And I know we can create an even more transparent and even more accountable United States government."

The American Society of News Editors poll, which surveyed 1,001 adult residents of the United States, found that Americans believe the federal government is more secretive than local and state governments.

While 70 percent said the federal government is very or somewhat secretive, 36 percent said that about their local governments and 48 percent said that about their state governments, according to the Scripps Howard News Service report.

The poll out Sunday was conducted Feb. 3 to March 9, and it has a margin of error of about four percentage points. The The American Society of Newspaper Editors, which commissioned the poll, organizes "Sunshine Week" each year.