Washington, D.C., January 21, 2009 - On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order and two presidential memoranda heralding what he called a "new era of openness." Announcing a Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act to reestablish a presumption of disclosure for information requested under FOIA, President Obama said that "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."
The FOIA Memorandum articulates a presumption of disclosure for government records and a hostility to the use of secrecy laws to cover up embarrassing information. It directs the Attorney General to issue new guidelines governing FOIA and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to improve information dissemination to the public.
President Obama also issued an executive order reversing changes made by President George W. Bush to the Presidential Records Act (PRA), stating he would hold himself and his own records "to a new standard of openness." The PRA order permits only the incumbent president (and not former presidents' heirs or designees or former vice presidents) to assert constitutional privileges to withhold information, and would provide for review by the Attorney General and the White House Counsel before a president could claim privilege over his or her records.
Finally, President Obama also today issued a Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government which recognizes that "[o]penness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government." It directs the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the Chief Technology Officer, and the Administrator of the General Services Administration to develop an Open Government Directive within 120 days to implement the memo.
"This is the earliest and most emphatic call for open government from any president in history," said Archive director Tom Blanton. "President Obama has reversed two of the most dramatic secrecy moves of the Bush initiatives, one that told agencies to withhold whatever they could under FOIA and the other that gave presidential heirs and vice presidents the power to withhold presidential records indefinitely."
In November 2008, the National Security Archive and a coalition of more than 60 organizations called on President Obama to reverse the secrecy trend and issue new directives on openness on Day One of his presidency. Today, President Obama heeded that call and took decisive action to ensure that openness, transparency, and accountability would be the rules and not the exceptions for his administration.
"President Obama is doing what he said he would do from the campaign trail. He is trying to transform how the public will learn about government decisions and actions" said Meredith Fuchs, the Archive's General Counsel. "I hope his decisive leadership on these issues pushes the bureaucracy to make these principles a reality -- to give us an accountable, democratic, national government."