Sunday Reflection: Obama gets failing grade on government transparency

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An incredible claim was made recently by the Obama White House, namely that the president has "reaped a great deal of praise for transforming the White House into one of the most transparent in modern times."

The truth is President Obama and members of his administration have made public relations feints towards more transparency, but no serious transparency or media outlet has heaped any "great deal of praise" for dishonest public relations moves. In fact, it has been quite the opposite.

I testified three times last year before Congress on Obama administration secrecy. Testifying with me were representatives from groups from across the ideological spectrum. Every single one of us expressed frustration and criticism of the Obama transparency gamesmanship.

Judicial Watch is the most active requestor of records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the country. And since this administration stonewalls us on even the most basic requests about what the government is up to, we're the most active FOIA litigator as well.

And after nearly 18 years of battling government secrecy through three presidential administrations, we are in a unique position to assess the relative transparency policies of each of them.

The Obama administration is less transparent than was the George W. Bush administration, which was supposedly the pinnacle of government secrecy.

Yes, I'm aware that Obama promised to make transparency a "cornerstone" of his administration. But there is a gap a mile wide between this rhetoric and the reality in the Obama administration.

Judicial Watch has filed over 830 FOIA requests with the Obama administration so far. And we have filed more than 60 FOIA lawsuits in federal court against this administration. This number grows by the day. We'd file more, but we only have so many lawyers.

True, the Bush and Clinton administrations were tough and tricky. But the Obama administration is tougher and trickier.

Administratively, agencies have built additional hurdles and have stonewalled even the most basic FOIA requests. And once we're forced to go to federal court, the Obama administration continues to fight us tooth and nail.

Here are two examples to make my point.

Judicial Watch has been digging hard into the scandals behind the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their role in helping trigger the global financial and related housing crises.

A key component of this investigation involves the role political corruption played in the failure of adequate congressional oversight and the catastrophic collapse of these "government-sponsored enterprises" in 2008.

That is why we filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Obama administration to obtain documents related to Fannie's and Freddie's campaign contributions over the last several election cycles (of which then-Sen. Barack Obama was a chief beneficiary).

Since American taxpayers are on the hook for trillions of dollars, including already as much as $153 billion for Fannie and Freddie, Americans deserve to know how and why this financial collapse occurred and who in Washington, D.C., is responsible.

Unfortunately the Obama administration disagrees. In 2010, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), the agency responsible for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, responded to our FOIA lawsuit by telling us that the requested documents are "not 'agency records' subject to disclosure." That means you might get records from the CIA under FOIA but never from Fannie and Freddie!

Never mind the fact that political corruption led to Fannie and Freddie's downfall. Never mind the fact that the downfall of these agencies tipped the economy into chaos, triggering massive federal bailouts of the private sector.

And never mind that the FHFA seized control of Fannie and Freddie and currently has full custody and control over their records. To any request for these records, the Obama administration still says "none of your business."

(This Obama secrecy is also shielding documents that could shed light about Newt Gingrich's consulting contract with Freddie Mac.)

In addition to the problem of walling off from public accountability FHFA's control of our nation's mortgage market through Fannie and Freddie, the Obama Treasury Department has been seemingly incapable of disclosing even basic information on the various government bailouts.

So I can't quite fathom how this administration can laud a new era of transparency, while over $1 trillion in government bailout spending has been shielded from practical oversight and scrutiny by the American people.

And what of the White House's repeated trumpeting of the release of Secret Service White House visitor logs?

In point of fact, the Obama administration is refusing to release hundreds of thousands of visitor logs while repeating a Bush administration last-ditch legal position that the visitor logs are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

So while the Obama administration attempts to take the "high ground" in the debate by releasing a select number of visitor logs, visitor records continue to be withheld in defiance of FOIA law.

In the fall of 2009, Judicial Watch staff visited with senior White House official Norm Eisen, then-special counsel to the president for ethics and government, to discuss Judicial Watch's pursuit of the White House visitor logs. Eisen encouraged us to praise the Obama administration's commitment to transparency publicly, saying it would be good for them and good for us.

However, the Obama team refused to abandon their legally indefensible contention that Secret Service White House visitor logs are not subject to disclosure under FOIA law. So we filed a lawsuit to ask the court to enforce the law.

As with Fannie and Freddie, the Obama administration attempted to advance its ridiculous and bogus claim that the visitor logs "are not agency records subject to the FOIA."

However, a federal court judge saw right through these shenanigans last summer. In a historic and embarrassing defeat for the Obama White House, the court ruled on August 17, 2011, that Secret Service White House visitor logs are agency records that are subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Now the Obama administration will have to release all records of all visitors to the White House - or explain why White House visits should be kept secret under the law.

To delay the inevitable, the "most transparent administration in history" has appealed the White House visitor logs ruling. There is no way that the Obama White House will want transparency in an election year.

Indeed the appeal of visitor logs ruling will likely delay any release of records until after election.

Transparency laws ensure government accountability. A president who doesn't want you to know who is visiting him in the White House or why he got big money from Fannie Mac is a president who doesn't want to be accountable to the American people.

Tom Fitton is president of Judicial Watch, Inc.

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