Obama’s Big Transparency Test

When he took office, President Barack Obama claimed that “transparency and the rule of law” would be the “touchstones” of his presidency. But did he really mean it? He has a chance to keep his word by reversing a key Bush administration decision that’s still shielding crucial details of the White House emails scandal from the public eye.

Back in 2007, the Bush administration abruptly decided that the obscure White House Office of Administration would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. For more than three decades, the OA had responded to FOIA requests just like any other government agency. But the OA is responsible for overseeing the White House email archiving system. And by 2007, those archives were missing millions of emails that could have shed light on numerous scandals: the outing of Valerie Plame, the U.S. attorney firings, and the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

The Bush administration didn’t want to release documents explaining how the emails got lost. So it claimed that the OA wasn’t a federal agency, but an advisory office, and therefore didn’t have to respond to FOIA requests. (Mother Jones readers may recall the moment, in January 2008, when litigation surrounding this unusual claim caused a DC district court to allow limited discovery in order to find out whether OA was, in fact, a federal agency.)

A court eventually upheld the Bush administration’s unusual claim in June 2008. This was a critical victory in the White House’s successful quest to make it through 2009 without giving up documents on the missing emails. (The case is on appeal.) But if Obama reverses the Bush administration’s definition of the OA, the court fight will be moot, and we will be one step closer to uncovering the secrets the Bush administration most wanted to keep.

In a letter [PDF] to White House Counsel Gregory Craig released Friday, 37 watchdog and transparency groups urged Obama to once again open the OA to FOIA requests. Their request is a true test of Obama’s commitment to transparency. If the office is subject to FOIA, that means watchdogs can sue the administration if it denies them the documents they want. In other words, Obama has a choice between continuing the Bush-Cheney regime of secrecy and ending it.