Open Gov Advocates Meet with POTUS – A First-Hand Account

In recent days, several news outlets have reported that individuals representing organizations in the openness community met with President Obama in the Oval Office to present him with an award. Many of these accounts have noted the meeting was not on the President’s official calendar for the day and that there was no press in the room. This is an accurate statement of fact, but not a full presentation of the meeting and its significance for our community.

On Monday, 28 March, I and several of my partners in — Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive, Danielle Brian of the Project On Government Oversight, Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Gary Bass of OMB Watch –met with the President of the United States. As far as any of us can remember, this is the first time any President has met with advocates for more government openness and less government secrecy – and we had an open exchange with him about both the successes of his Administration and the much more that needs to be done.

The meeting and presentation of the award was originally scheduled to coincide with Sunshine Week – an annual celebration of the public’s right to know what the government is doing. The award is in honor of President Obama’s commitment to transparency. Indeed, President Obama is the only President to officially direct the federal government to make transparency a priority. During the meeting we acknowledged what has been accomplished and had an open and honest discussion about how much more the Administration has to do to turn the President’s commitment into real-world government transparency. The President acknowledged that they had more to do, and went on to say that we were there to tell him what that ‘more’ included.

We discussed FOIA, open government, the need to protect reporters with a good shield law, and to protect whistleblowers – including and especially those in the national security arena. We expressed our concern about over-classification and its effect on both leaks of classified information and in the invocation of the state secrets privilege. On the latter, we all agreed on the need for someone outside the Executive Branch to “look over its shoulder.”

So this was a substantive discussion with the leader of the United States on topics of concern to our community.  And it went twice as long as we expected.

We were disappointed that no press photographer and no pool reporter were at the meeting. We were really surprised to learn it was not on the President’s daily calendar, especially as it was on his calendar on the originally-scheduled date. Indeed, the fact that the March 16th appointment was cancelled came up during that day’s White House briefing, and staff should have realized the meeting was of great interest to the media and the public. Why they decided to close the meeting to the press is not something we understand.

The meeting with the President was followed up by a similarly open exchange with Chief White House Counsel Bob Bauer and Steve Croley of the Domestic Policy Council

This Administration is, of course, far from perfect in the accomplishment of the President’s commitment to make this the most open and transparent administration in history. We do not have doubts about the commitment, nor about the hard work it will take on all sides to turn the commitment into a government-wide, sustainable reality.

The meeting with the President was an important first for our community. I left even more committed to the work we all do.  With your support, we will continue to work with the Administration – and to hold feet to the fire — to ensure that we do, in truth, open the government.

(Patrice McDermott, 31 March 2011)


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