Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Four years later, did the president keep his promise?
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a consortium of right-to-know groups. “I think they’ve made progress, but a whole lot more remains to be done.”
The Obama administration set the bar high. In his first inaugural address, Obama said that “those of us who manage the public’s dollars” will “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
The next day, the president issued two memos. In one on the Freedom of Information Act, he wrote that FOIA “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
A second memo addressed transparency: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.” And that “openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
But transparency was not defined in detail, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). “People were left to imagine whatever they wanted to be the content of those statements. Inevitably, disappointment soon followed.”
Next came more memos and directives, including a memo from Attorney General Eric Holder encouraging federal agencies to release discretionary information and a White House directive outlining an open-government to-do list for agencies.
Among the assigned tasks:
Two months ago, the National Security Archive found that “66 of 99 federal agencies” never updated their FOIA regulations even though Holder ordered them to make changes in a March 19, 2009, memorandum.
“It takes somebody beating up on the chief FOIA officer and the head of the agency to make sure the message is being heeded all through the agency, ” McDermott said. “And they haven’t done that.”
But all has not been dark and cloudy. The secrecy veil is beginning to lift in some areas.
Last year, the White House released its visitor logs, and Obama signed legislation that provided greater protection for government whistleblowers.
The administration also created Data.gov as a repository of federal data. A December 2009 White House memo directed agencies to make “high-value” data sets available on the site. Although Data.gov was criticized for its lack of usability and the selection of data, it now has more than 350,000 data sets from agencies.
Another website, FOIA.gov, tracks data about how agencies respond to FOIA requests for records and provides tools to help citizens make requests and track for information.
“We know more today than ever before about intelligence spending,” Aftergood said, citing bright spots. “And we know more today than before about the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.” (Estimates put the U.S. stockpile at just more than 5,000 in 2012, according to an FAS report.)
Some basics also have changed. Many agencies employ simple, yet helpful practices such as communicating with FOIA requesters and giving them ways to check the status of their requests. Some agencies have posted contact information for their FOIA offices and other personnel on their websites.
Still, many requesters say they continue to face delays and costly processing fees. Although government data show that agency FOIA backlogs are significantly lower than in 2008, the figures for 2011 show an increase from the two prior years. An analysis by Bloomberg News last fall found that 19 out of 20 cabinet-level agencies failed to properly fulfill FOIA requests.
“Other areas are like duck feet paddling beneath the surface,” McDermott said. “You may not see them, but they are moving.”
In fiscal year 2011, agencies processed 8 percent more FOIA requests even though the number of incoming requests went up. And now, more than 40 years since the passage of FOIA, government employees who process requests have an actual job category — “government information specialist.”
Obama’s second inaugural address contained no mention of transparency, however, and no memos or directives have called for a more open government. That leaves some to wonder if the commitment to transparency continues.
According to White House spokesman Eric Schultz, it does. “While creating a more open government requires sustained effort,” he said, “our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people.”
“Reducing secrecy and improving transparency are still compelling ideas that are good for reducing costs, improving efficiency and engaging the public in a constructive way,” Aftergood said. “Those of us who do advocacy in that area shouldn’t be disappointed. We should get to work.”
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)