Sunshine Week Drum-roll: The 2011 award for worst transparency goes to the DOJ

With the start of Sunshine Week, the Justice Department announced the launch of FOIA.gov. At the DOJ celebration, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli stated:

The value of transparency comes from the belief that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the recognition that we had better do our best, and act in a way that would make the public proud if they saw everything we did. Transparency is about more than just the "threat" of public disclosure, though, and the notion of keeping government "honest." It's about making government, and making the public who becomes informed by our transparency, the best that we all can be. There will always be information that we can't share, but those of you in this room are fulfilling on a very basic principle of democracy: that if we give people the information, they will create a better government.

Yet according to George Washington University's National Security Archive, the Justice Department won the Rosemary Award for "Worst Open Government Performance in 2011." The National Security Archive cited, "selective leaks prosecutions, business-as-usual secrecy arguments in litigation, and retrograde information regulations. Justice's actions contradict Obama pledges for open government, help explain performance gap between excellent policy and 'same-old' practice. Individual 'dubious achievement' awards go to three career DoJ lawyers; Crowded field of award nominees includes contenders from CIA, DHS, Central Command."

POGO (Project on Government Oversight) blogged, "Kudos to ABC's Jake Tapper for calling out the White House on its unprecedented use of the Espionage Act to silence whistleblowers." In a question to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Tapper asked, "The White House keeps praising these journalists who are - who've been killed...How does that square with the fact that this administration has been so aggressively trying to stop aggressive journalism in the United States by using the Espionage Act to take whistleblowers to court?" Tapper added that the Espionage Act had only been used three times total in history before the Obama Administration invoked the Espionage Act six times.

This spurred former DOJ Director of Public Affairs Matt Miller to write into the Daily Beast where Miller claimed, "The difference between a leaker and a whistle-blower is important. Leaks of classified information can endanger American soldiers and intelligence officers and expose sensitive national-security programs to our enemies. Whistle-blowers expose violations of law, abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific threat to public health or safety."

That distinction between whistleblowers and leakers, does not explain how the Espionage Act could make felons of us all for simply reading about or discussing "classified" information which we were not "authorized" to see.  

To celebrate Sunshine Week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) published a 2012 FOIA Gallery which highlights some of the Freedom of Information Act bombshells that EPIC has obtained in the last year. One such FOIA revealed records of the FBI's surveillance of Wikileaks supporters. The gallery also includes FBI watchlist guidelines, DHS monitoring social media for dissent and Homeland Security's mind-reading terrorist 'pre-crime' detectors dubbed the FAST program.

President Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in history, yet during his administration we learned of a massive database of secret watchlists and government monitoring on steroids. David Sobel, senior counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Politico, "despite the positive rhetoric that has come from the White House and the attorney general, that guidance has not been translated into real world results in actual cases. ... Basically, the reviews are terrible." An Associated Press investigation found that the Justice Department "- which is responsible for ensuring that agencies comply with Obama's orders to be more transparent - officials invoked the exemption 1,500 times last year, an increase from 1,231 times the previous year."

Wired added, "What’s more, there were 544,360 requests for information last year under the Freedom of Information Act to the 35 biggest federal agencies — 41,000 requests more than the year before. Yet the bureaucracy responded to 12,400 fewer requests than the prior year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press." The Atlantic cited a Justice Department FOIA expert who claimed the DOJ just makes up the numbers to look good.

Despite the promise of transparency, the Obama Administration claims it can't keep up with the FOIA requests. This jogged my memory of an old Jon Stewart video which reminds us that while running for President, Barack Obama promised to:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

(at 1:20) "Close down Guantánamo, restore habeas corpus, say no to rendition(s), say no to wireless wiretaps."...(1:44) "Part of my job as the next president is to break the fever of fear that has been exploited by this administration."...(3:22) "By giving suspects a chance, even one chance, to challenge the terms of their detention in court, we could solve this problems without harming our efforts in the War on Terror one bit."...(5:22) "We are going to lead by example, by maintaining the highest standards of civil liberties and human rights."...(5:32) "No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient, that is not who we are....We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers and that justice is not arbitrary."...(6:15) Whether it was the run up to the Iraq war or the revelation of secret programs, Americans often felt like part of the story had been unnecessarily held from them."...(7:08) "I know a little about whistle blowing and making sure those folks get protection."

If you are interested in shining a light on the government to disinfect the murky secrets stored in the shadows, the EFF reminds us that "FOIA requests are relatively easy to file and can be done by non-lawyers. On The Media has a how-to guide on how to file a Freedom of Information Act request about yourself." With the start of Sunshine Week, the Justice Department launched FOIA.gov, or you might try MuckRock to submit your FOIA requests.

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