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We’ve all seen the epic crucible of Edward Snowden, and whether or not he is deemed a watchdog hero or a whistleblowing ninny is not the focus of the debate. What lessons Americans can learn, and how journalists can protect themselves from government, is the bigger picture.
Obama’s administration promised in his election in 2008 and his re-election in 2012 that he would be a president who supports transparency. Whistleblowers in federal government and corporations should be protected, as they are vital to the checks-and-balances system in our government. But nowhere in the president’s Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies does he mention this.
Instead, he stated, “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
We think the government should uphold and swiftly process FOIA requests, even if the information will reveal government officials in a bad or embarrassing light. Washington has nothing more to be embarrassed about after the fiasco of a shutdown that occurred earlier in October.
FOIA, better known to journalists and open government groups, is the Freedom of Information Act. This act ensures access to requested public information. Without regulations like FOIA, the government could potentially withhold any bit of information from the public simply “just because.”
Government agencies such as the Department of Justice ignored instructions from the top to update their FOIA regulations. In fact, most government agencies had failed to update their FOIA regulations since 2012. An administration that touts transparency but controls the message is even worse than an administration like Bush’s, which was enveloped in government secrecy.
Unlike presidents of the past who have promised a more open government and freedom of information, Obama’s administration has used the Espionage Act more times than all the past presidents combined. Our president, by means of retroactive orders and classifying previously unclassified but sensitive information, is prosecuting and destroying the lives of the government employees he vowed to protect.
This isn’t an Obama-bashing session; on the contrary, this is a call to action. Before American citizens start warming up to the idea of putting national security above the public’s right to know, we need to educate each other and point out inconsistencies in existing policy.
Although Congress is more of a monkey house than a legislative body right now, contact members of Congress and tell them we need a separate Government Information Services Office to improve the FOIA process. Obama needs to support actual FOIA reform, and ensure that different government agencies are carrying out the orders instead of ignoring them.
As journalists and as Americans, it’s our duty to hold the government accountable and become more active in participating in government decisions. This being said, the government needs to be more open and identify deficiencies and mistakes so that it will operate better for the people.