News & Politics

It’s Kind of Nuts That the Obama Administration Wants Credit for Transparency

Gary Pruitt, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Associated Press, speaks at the National Press Club (NPC) in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Pruitt, addressing a luncheon at the NPC, spoke about how the Justice Department violated its own rules in subpoenaing AP phone records. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In a letter to the New York Times Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest writes a recent column in the paper failed to “acknowledge the important and unprecedented steps that the Obama administration has taken to fulfill the president’s promise to lead the most transparent White House in history.”

Among the administration’s labors in service of transparency, Earnest explains: “routinely and proactively releasing the name, date and time of nearly every White House visitor” and releasing “more than 180,000 data sets on a federal government website.” Reporters, he says, “have access to mind-boggling amounts of data,” without so much as filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

Which is great, because as it happens the Obama administration has consistently set records for not filling FOIA requests. It has argued before the Supreme Court that FOIA exemptions should not be “narrowly construed.” It has demanded ludicrous fees for public records.

That’s not to mention the prosecutions! The Obama administration is responsible for nine prosecutions about leaks, more than all previous administrations combined. It sought to compel Times reporter James Risen to give up a source, trying to “narrow the field of national security reporting,” Risen said at a conference in 2014, as part of a way to “create a path for accepted reporting.” The administration was more than willing to punish reporters who strayed, Risen said. Risen was hardly the only journalist to wander into the administration’s sights; its desire to silence leakers represents an ever-expanding view of national security and secrets.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget the off-the-record meetings with journalists (“We don’t provide lists of participants”), the embargoes, that time the government secretly got Associated Press phone records. The Obama administration even made it harder to get White House photos.

But what about those data sets? That “seems nice,” ProPublica journalist Derek Willis writes on Twitter, “but many are not useful.” Anyone who wants a picture of just how transparent this administration is should read Willis’s colleague Justin Elliott on his quest to get records about the administration’s response to Hurricane Sandy. He writes:

When I probed a bit more into what had gone wrong at FEMA, the agency’s entire FOIA apparatus started to look like a Potemkin village of open government. The FOIA staff was never trained properly, a FEMA spokesman told me. Of 16 positions in the office, eight have long been vacant for reasons that are not entirely clear. The backlog of requests at FEMA has ballooned to 1,500. That’s more than double what it was less than two years ago.

That’s the Obama administration’s real record on transparency. And yeah, it’s kind of mind-boggling.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.