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Editorial: Obama-like secrecy, not the media, is the enemy

Call it the antithesis of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information. Despite former President Barack Obama’s claim his was “the most transparent administration in history,” that very administration spent a record $36.2 million in 2016 on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records sought under the Freedom of Information Act.

Just imagine the good that $36.2 million could have done.

It gets worse; for a second consecutive year, the Obama administration set a record for how often federal employees told citizens, journalists and others that, despite searching, they couldn’t find a single page of files requested. It also set a record for outright denials of access to files, refusing to quickly consider requests described as especially newsworthy, and forcing people who had asked the government to waive search and copy fees to pay for records. The government even admitted that it had been wrong to initially refuse to turn over all or parts of records in more than one-third of such cases – the highest rate in at least six years.

As bad as those “transparency” figures are, the administration of President Donald Trump – a man who has broken with modern presidential practice by repeatedly refusing to make public his income tax returns, and barred some mainstream news organizations from a White House press briefing – could perform at an even lower level.

As expected, news organizations – led by the New York Times, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press – have been among the top FOIA requesters over the past four years. And it bears noting that more than half the government’s total record requests went to the Justice Department, Homeland Security and the Pentagon – because the public deserves to know how and if the government it elects and pays for is meting out justice and keeping it safe.

It’s also interesting to recall some of the high-profile cases that pitted the public’s right to know against government secrecy. On Monday, the AP settled its 2015 lawsuit against the State Department for files about Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state, at AP’s request, and received $150,546 from the department to cover part of its legal fees. Still pending are AP lawsuits against the FBI for records about its decision to impersonate an AP journalist during a criminal investigation, and records about who helped the FBI hack into a mass shooting suspect’s iPhone and how much the government paid to do it.

This week – Sunshine Week, the national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government, and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy – is an appropriate time to shine a light on such secrecy and to highlight the disingenuous claims presidential administrations tend to make as they throw about the buzzword “transparency.”

What matters is not whether an administration appears to play nice with the media or deems the press the enemy; what matters is whether the public gets access to the information it is entitled to. It didn’t in 77 percent of its requests in the last two years of Obama, according to the federal government.

Time will tell if the sun will come out during the Trump administration.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.