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Obama White House Accepts Openness Award in Secret


Obama White House

President Barack Obama talks with advisers in the Oval Office.

The White House/ Pete Souza

The Obama White House portrayed itself as one of the most transparent to the public in modern history. President Barack Obama's first executive order, for example, directed the Obama White House to shed more light on presidential records.

"To help build a new foundation for the 21st century, we need to reform our government so that it is more efficient, more transparent, and more creative," Obama said in April 2009, four months after taking office.

See more: Obama's First Executive Order

So it's no surprise that the Obama White House should have been praised for its transparency - specifically its directive that department heads "should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure when it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Here's what is surprising, though: When advocates for transparency from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press met with Obama in the White House to honor him in March 2011, the event was closed to the press and the public.

That's right.

The Obama White House didn't list the event on the president's publicly-released daily schedule. Nor did the Obama White House release an official readout, transcript or photos from the meeting.

Criticism of Obama White House

The secrecy surrounding the Obama White House event disappointed advocates for transparency in government.

"What irony: a meeting on transparency that was not disclosed beforehand," Gary Bass, executive director of open-government advocacy group OMB Watch, said in a statement.

"Now, instead of the story being about what the president had to say during the meeting and about the substance of the administration's openness policies, the narrative has become about a secret meeting," Bass said. "That's a real shame, but it's a consequence of not addressing the optics and not ensuring that the meeting was transparent."

"... Staff should have realized the meeting was of great interest to the media and the public," Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org weighed in. "Why they decided to close the meeting to the press is not something we understand."

About the Obama White House Meeting

Attending the Oval Office meeting with Obama were Bass, McDermott, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press executive director Lucy A. Dalglish; Tom Blanton, executive director of The National Security Archive at George Washington University; and Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.

See more: Obama's Oval Office

During the meeting, the Obama White House reiterated its 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.

The president also reaffirmed support for a qualified federal shield law protecting reporters' confidential sources.

Timing of Obama White House Meeting

In yet another delicious bit of irony, the Reporters Committee bestowed its award to the Obama White House in honor of Sunshine Week, which is dedicated to promoting the right of journalists and the public to be able to access information from local, state and federal government.

If something smells just a tad rotten or spoiled about the secrecy of the president's meeting with transparency advocates, perhaps the Obama White House should keep in mind a favorite saying of government watchdogs:

Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

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