OBAMA, FOIA, AND BUSH…. Fresh off his explanation that he’s rooting against the United States for the next four years, Rush Limbaugh argued yesterday that Barack Obama’s commitment to transparency and accountability might “make it easier for the media to go get Bush documents.”
If the goal is to keep important government information shielded from public scrutiny, Rush is probably right to be worried. Obama announced yesterday that he’s changing the way Freedom of Information Act requests are dealt with, making it easier for Americans to access materials.
In particular, Obama said:
“Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former president wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution.”
Notice that part about “I or a former president”? It led Tim Dickinson to note, “Obama has just rescinded the rule that would have let Bush’s heirs continue to claim executive privilege over his papers.”
Is that right? It seems like it. Bush put measures in place to help keep his records under wraps, and Zachary Roth explained, “[I]t certainly seems possible that on his first full day in office, the new president has dealt significant a blow to the Bush administration’s efforts to permanently keep information from the public.”
Update: The LA Times had a good summary of Obama’s first day orders on transparency:
The first order effectively undid a Bush administration policy that had restricted the release of presidential documents — a rule that had been challenged in court by the National Security Archives and by historians.
Bush’s rule allowed former presidents, vice presidents and their heirs to cite executive privilege to block the release of documents after they have left office. With his order, Obama essentially threw out that rule, allowing only the current president to block the release of documents and depriving heirs of that right.
The second Obama order was designed to reinvigorate the Freedom of Information Act. Open-records advocates have complained that a memo by former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft in 2001 encouraged executive branch officials to delay or halt the release of documents requested under the law.