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President Barack Obama repeatedly pledged he would run the most transparent administration in the history of the United States during both of his presidential campaigns, but the evidence shows Obama’s administration has not only failed to meet that standard, it has actively worked to conceal important information from the public.
For instance, in March 2015, the Obama administration rescinded a regulation requiring the administration to comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, thereby exempting itself from public scrutiny and oversight. So much for transparency.
The Obama administration’s action should not surprise anyone. An Associated Press investigation conducted in 2014 shows secrecy has increased dramatically under Obama’s time in office. In 2013, the Obama administration censored or denied 244,675 FOIA requests, which amounts to about 36% of the FOIA applications the administration received. This rejection rate is higher than under any previous presidential administration. Another 196,034 FOIA requests were denied because the government claimed it couldn’t find records or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper. In 2014, the figures were even worse. More than 250,000, or about 39%, of FOIA requests were either censored or denied. In 215,584 other instances, the government said the records could not be found or it decided the requests were unreasonable.
Secrecy on matters of environmental science
Memos and information related to national security deserve heightened scrutiny before being released—if they are released at all—but the Obama administration has concealed or denied the release of critical information not related to national security as well, such as the scientific information used to justify environmental regulations. Obama’s lack of transparency when it comes to environmental science makes it very difficult for independent researchers to review important data the government relies on to ensure environmental regulations are justified and based on sound science.
Multiple U.S. Senate reports have found Obama administration officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government environmental agencies have repeatedly attempted to avoid public input at meetings or have worked to limit scrutiny by hiding information that ought to have been made readily available, violating the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), widely known as the “open meetings law.”
EPA utilized a variety of techniques to hide information from the public. To avoid having the names of environmental lobbyists appear on agency visitor logs, EPA employees met them at nearby cafes, parks and at townhouses. After this practice became known, officials fought against disclosure in court, arguing the names and dates were immune to FOIA requests. In violation of official administration policies, EPA and environmental activists used personal email accounts, rather than work email accounts, to exchange ideas, develop regulations, and coordinate public relations and marketing plans to generate support for proposed agency regulations. Officials have also used FACA loopholes and FOIA exemptions to close more than 60% of committee meetings to the public.
Cases of unjustified secrecy
On March 2, 2015, Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for mishandling FOIA requests. Lamberth wrote, “Either EPA sought to evade … lawful FOIA request so the agency could destroy responsive documents, or EPA demonstrated apathy and carelessness toward Landmark’s request. Either scenario reflects poorly on EPA and surely serves to diminish the public’s trust in the agency.”
Another investigation found EPA vetoed a proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska before it had even conducted a scientific review, suggesting a political motivation behind the decision, rather than one based on environmental concerns. A string of emails from December 2010 show numerous EPA employees were working hand-in-hand with environmental lobbyists for years to prevent the mine from being approved. In one email, EPA’s Richard Parkin asks EPA attorney Cara Steiner-Riley, “Cara, in terms of the record for the decision making … are message chains such as this one, protectable from FOIA? should we be concerned with that?”
In 2015, The New York Times revealed EPA worked with non-government environmental groups to gin-up support for its Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, a regulation giving EPA and the Army Corp of Engineers control over virtually all U.S. waters.
The Obama administration directed EPA to create broad public outreach campaigns to garner support for WOTUS, among other federal environmental regulations. EPA responded by developing a social media marketing campaign, created in conjunction with the Sierra Club and Organizing for Action. This violated three decades of Justice Department legal opinions saying federal agencies should not engage in substantial “grass roots” lobbying, which is defined as “communications by executive officials directed to members of the public at large, … intended to persuade them in turn to communicate with their elected representatives on some issue of concern to the executive.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a study in June 2015 that claimed Earth was not in the midst of a nearly two-decades-long hiatus in rising temperatures, contradicting the findings made by every other source of temperature data to date, including the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This led U.S. House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) to open an oversight investigation to determine how NOAA attained its results. After NOAA refused requests made by Smith to have access to the data, work product, and emails exchanged between scientists that resulted in NOAA’s surprising result, Smith’s committee issued a subpoena to obtain the information.