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Opinion

Opacity of Hope: Obama broke FOIA promises

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Photo - President Barack Obama talks with senior White House adviser David Plouffe as they leave the Kingsmill Resort, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Williamsburg, Va., enroute to New York and presidential debate. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
President Barack Obama talks with senior White House adviser David Plouffe as they leave the Kingsmill Resort, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012, in Williamsburg, Va., enroute to New York and presidential debate. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Opinion,Op-Eds

Within days of entering the Oval Office, President Obama issued a Jan. 21, 2009 Memorandum announcing a new presumption in favor of disclosure concerning Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests.

On the same day, speaking to incoming members of the Cabinet and staff of the White House, Obama said, "The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law."

Christopher Horner's "The Liberal War on Transparency" accomplishes a 300-plus-page indictment on Obama's transparency promises, particularly when it comes to the FOIA.

Horner's polemic targets the Obama Administration for "conducting the most aggressive prosecution campaign against whistleblowers and leakers in the country's history." A recent article in the Atlantic affirms Horner's warrant that Obama has waged war on whistleblowers. Horner reports that both the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, and OpenTheGovernment.org found an increase from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration in the reliance upon FOIA exemptions that protect against disclosure. Horner also paints a substantive picture of the tactics Administration employees have used to conduct official business while avoiding transparency: secret email addresses, unofficial computers and off-site servers.

Horner is at his best in showing that the politicization of university science ultimately eviscerates the distinction between science and politics. It signals an establishment bias toward litigation to protect itself "from the tyranny of taxpayer scrutiny." For Horner, the role of citizen journalism has been obfuscated by the political bias of the class of professional journalists -- those for whom public access to information risks not just a highly informed electorate, but democratic competition.

His investigations into Solyndra, the Troubled Asset Relief Program's, or TARP, bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, global warming alarmism, recess appointments, regulatory overreach and green energy highlight a Constitution-ignoring and anti-congressional-oversight political culture in the federal government, all of which Obama promised to change. And Horner's investigatory sleuthing exposes enough taxpayer-funded dinner parties, soirees and back-room deals to make for a Fitzgerald novel.

Horner's "Liberal War" argues that the Administration's withholding of documents as "pre-decisional" or as "deliberative process" is nothing more than a charade to create delay tactics or avoid oversight. Among the Administration's attempts at opacity: The Executive Branch has used personal email accounts, personal computers and personal technological devices to conduct official business outside the scope of the FOIA.

Perhaps the most useful to aspiring citizen journalists is Horner's nutshell-like treatise and "how to" for FOIA-based investigations. Horner's sage advice for the citizen journalist is a remedy for what to do when an application for a fee waiver is denied: "In the event your request for a fee waiver is denied and, objectively, you qualify, you have the option of promptly sending another FOIA request seeking copies of all requests for fee waivers that were granted by that agency." This recommendation has proven itself a useful strategy for many, including my own organization. But ultimately, Mr. Horner's parting words of encouragement to prospective citizen journalists on the FOIA is to "Annoy the Statists." It appears, at least in Mr. Horner's case, that he has more than accomplished this task.

Daniel Epstein, executive director of the taxpayer watchdog group Cause of Action, is a former counsel to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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