Editorial: Obama administration too secretive

Everyone understands the need for government to keep national security secrets. But the Obama administration continues to

go to extraordinary lengths to keep the American people from knowing about their political decision making process.

For example, it was recently revealed

that President Obama’s political appointees, including the secretary for

Health and

Human Services, are using secret government email accounts they

say are necessary to prevent their inboxes from being overwhelmed

with unwanted messages, according to a review by The Associated

Press.

The scope of using the secret accounts across government remains a mystery: Most U.S. agencies have failed to turn over lists

of political appointees’ email addresses, which the AP sought under the Freedom of Information Act more than three months

ago. The Labor Department initially asked the AP to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses.

The AP asked for the addresses

following last year’s disclosures that the former administrator of the

Environmental Protection

Agency had used separate email accounts at work. The practice is

separate from officials who use personal, non-government

email accounts for work, which generally is discouraged — but

often happens anyway — due to laws requiring that most federal

records be preserved. The secret email accounts complicate an

agency’s legal responsibilities to find and turn over emails

in response to congressional or internal investigations, civil

lawsuits or public records requests because employees assigned

to compile such responses would necessarily need to know about

the accounts to search them. Secret accounts also drive perceptions

that government officials are trying to hide actions or decisions.

“What happens when that person doesn’t work there anymore? He leaves and someone makes a request (to review emails) in two

years,” said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, an open government group. “Who’s going to

know to search the other accounts? You would hope that agencies doing this would keep a list of aliases in a desk drawer,

but you know that isn’t happening.”

Agencies where the AP so far has

identified secret addresses, including the Labor Department and Health

and Human Services

(HHS), said maintaining non-public email accounts allows senior

officials to keep separate their internal messages with agency

employees from emails they exchange with the public. They also

said public and non-public accounts are always searched in

response to official requests and the records are provided as

necessary..

Courts have consistently set a high

bar for the government to withhold public officials’ records under the

federal privacy

rules. A federal judge, Marilyn Hall Patel of California, said in

August 2010 that “persons who have placed themselves in

the public light” — such as through politics or voluntarily

participation in the public arena — have a “significantly diminished

privacy interest than others.” Her ruling was part of a case in

which a journalist sought FBI records, but was denied.

Obama pledged during his first week in

office to make government more transparent and open. The nation’s

signature open-records

law, he said in a memo to his Cabinet, would be “administered with

a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

The American people have a right to know why and how the government policies are made, and they are not getting the information

that they have a right to from the Obama administration. People need to hold their government officials accountable, from

the president own down.

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This editorial was written by a member of the American Press Editorial Board. Its content reflects the collaborative opinion of the Board, whose members include Bobby Dower, Jim Beam, Crystal Stevenson and Donna Price.