Obama offers early hope to access advocates

Access advocates around the nation are heartened by some early signs from the Obama White House, including a reversal of the infamous Ashcroft Memo.

In sweeping Day One actions, Obama an executive order and two presidential memoranda on Freedom of Information Act compliance and the administration’s general stance on government openness.

“For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” Obama said. “Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

Obama has directed new Attorney General Eric Holder to issue new guidelines for how agencies treat Freedom of Information Act requests. Since 2001, agencies have been operating under a directive from former President George W. Bush’s first attorney general, John Ashcroft. Ashcroft encouraged agencies to look for reasons to withhold records and pledged to back up their decisions.

Obama’s FOIA memorandum offered a stark contrast to that approach: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption:  In the face of doubt, openness prevails…. All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.  The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

Access advocates will be following these developments closely, but the early signs are reason for optimism. You can read the full memorandum on FOIA here. And for an idea of what many openness activists would like to see from the Obama administration, click hereto read a report put together by OpenTheGovernment.org along with a number of other groups around the country. (OpenTheGovernment.org s working on a related project to identify records the federal government should make easier to access. Read about that project here.)The new approach to FOIA comes in the nick of time, by the way, given the actions of the Bush administration in its final days in office. ProPublica has documented last-minute attempts to restrict FOIA access. The report is worth reading, and you can do that by clicking here.