WASHINGTON — A coalition of open-government groups will present President Barack Obama a "sunshine" award for taking important steps toward openness and transparency in government, even though some of them are voicing concerns about gaps between his rhetoric on these issues and his administration's actions.
Obama was to receive the award Wednesday in an Oval Office meeting with five open-government advocates, until the White House scrapped the presentation at the last minute. The explanation why wasn't entirely transparent.
White House Counsel Bob Bauer told the advocates, already gathered at the White House, that he was "really sorry" but that there had been "pressing business" and the president would have to postpone their meeting until another day, according to one of them, Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
A White House aide told the press pool designated to witness the start of the meeting only that it was being rescheduled "due to changes to the president's schedule today."
That raised more questions than it answered. In fairness, Obama was dealing with crises in Japan, Libya and Bahrain and preparations for a Latin America trip starting Friday. He also had a meeting added earlier in the day with the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the radiation threat to Americans in Japan.
But he also had plans to attend a Democratic event in the evening. And he was feeling heat from Republicans who criticized him for taking time out to tape an ESPN interview on his predictions for the NCAA basketball tournament. And an hour before the award was to be given, Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, faced questions from reporters about findings that the administration has fallen short on its goals for being responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Carney said that Obama "has demonstrated a commitment to transparency and openness that is greater than any administration has shown in the past" and added, defensively, that "this is not an award that he is, that we are, giving to him or he is giving to himself. This is an award from an outside organization that has recognized the achievements this administration has made."
Advocates behind the award said that Obama deserves praise for instructing his agencies to be considerably more responsive than past administrations to FOIA requests; creating searchable databases for White House visitor and stimulus spending records; supporting a "shield" law for journalists; and implementing "apps" and social networking that let Americans get more information quickly from their government.
They hope that by giving Obama positive reinforcement on such fronts, he, in turn, will give them standing to press his aides on concerns that the administration too often invokes the state secrets privilege in court; prosecutes leakers; falls short on FOIA responses; allows loopholes to disclosure promises; and allows political considerations to interfere with communications in crises, such as the BP oil spill last year.
"It's quite possible to honor his commitment and at a later time continue to advocate for important openness in government," said Gary Bass, founder of OMB Watch and one of the advocates who will present the award on behalf of the Freedom of Information Day Conference. "Frankly we hope that by doing this it puts even more wind into the sails of transparency."
Bass said he feels "that commitment is clearly there" with Obama. "But he has a mixed record. I don't think we are yet ready to say he's the most open and transparent administration in history."
Bauer committed to sit down soon with advocates to hear them out, and to have the president meet with them to accept the award some time after he returns from Latin America, Blanton said.
The other advocates who were to present the award were Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Patrice McDermott, Director of Open The Government, a coalition of good-government groups dedicated to increasing government transparency and promoting public participation in government.
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