Obama Issues Executive Order on FOIA and Secrecy

January 21, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Although it’s not yet available on the White House Website, President Obama has reportedly issued an order aimed at reversing the secrecy policies of the Bush administration.

Former Bush administration Attorney General John Ashcroft encouraged information officers to vigorously search all the Freedom of Information Act exemptions before releasing anything, which yielded all sorts of excuses for not releasing documents. President Obama today issued a memo instructing “all members of his administration to operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government,” according to a White House press release.

The Memo reportedly instructs the Attorney General to issue new guidelines to the government implementing those principles.

Given the subject of the order, it’s a little odd that it isn’t online yet, but I hear the computers are down over at the White House–maybe crashed from the flurry of new activity?

Columbia Journalism Review reports that Obama has likely reverted to the old Clinton administration rules, which under Attorney General Janet Reno encouraged openness and the release of documents. (Apparently CJR hasn’t seen the order yet either.)

CJR notes that by 2006, a study of Justice Department data by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that FOIA requests were taking longer and were less likely to be fulfilled than at any time since 1998, when the department started tracking the data.

Update: In case anyone’s skeptical that Obama really means to change the policy, the new president also sent out a Memorandum For the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies with this missive on Transparency:


Update II: As a reader kindly pointed out below, the Obama administration has, since this earlier post, made all executive orders and presidential memoranda available.  They’re at http://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing_room/PresidentialActions/