Obama Talks Transparency With Activists in Oval Office

31 March 2011

Open government activists who met with President Obama March 28 for an unprecedented talk later described the 20-minute conversation in positive terms.

In three accounts by those present, the president was described as “clearly engaged” and enthusiastic about making more progress on transparency.

The president was given an award for his commitment to transparency, although the representatives of four groups also raised various concerns about the administration’s performance.

Reporting on the meeting, OMB Watch Executive Director Gary Bass wrote, “Although we’ve seen that commitment for the past two years, it was great to hear President Obama reiterate it face-to-face – and for him to tell us that he still wants to do more to be the most open and transparent president ever.”

Also attending were National Security Archive Executive Director Tom Blanton, Project on Government Oversight Executive Director Danielle Brian, OpenTheGovernment.org Director Patrice McDermott, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. They later met for an hour with several top Obama aides.

Among other things, the discussion covered protection of whistleblowers.

Dalglish wrote: President Obama also said that the administration would continue to support federal legislation to protect from retaliation whistleblowers who report government fraud and other illegal activity, but he noted that it is his duty as president to limit those protections in the cases of government employees who release information that is damaging to national security.”

Similarly, according to Brian’s account: “He said he doesn’t want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistleblowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing.”

She continued:

The President then did something that I think was remarkable. He said this is an incredibly difficult area and he wants to work through how to do a better job in handling it. He also agreed that too much information is classified, and asked us to work with his office on this. He wasn’t defensive nor was he dismissive. It was perhaps the dream moment for an advocate—hearing the most senior policymaker agree with you and offer to work together to tackle the problem.

The president also reiterated the administration’s commitment to encouraging federal agencies to improve their response rates to Freedom of Information Act requests and to more proactively post government records and databases online. He reaffirmed support for a qualified federal shield law protecting reporters’ confidential sources.

Several of those attending noted that he was the first president in at least 30 years who had invited open government advocates into the Oval Office.

Most press accounts about the meeting, such as this one in Politico, made much of the fact that the meeting had been postponed once before and was closed to the press, as are most oval office meetings.

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