A new report finds that in the past decade, federal agencies held the highest percentage of closed-door meetings in 2013 and 2014, undermining President Obama’s commitment to running the “most transparent administration in history.”
The report, from the Congressional Research Service, looked at data provided by federal agencies under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).
The executive branch utilizes federal advisory committees as a way to allow outside experts to provide advice and recommendations to the president and to federal agencies. According to the report, 825 federal advisory committees with 68,179 members held 7,173 meetings in fiscal year 2014, all at a cost of $334 million.
Most meetings are held by grant review committees or are special emphasis panel meetings and are often closed to protect advice provided by subject matter experts who require secrecy in order to provide honest opinions. Other meetings are closed in order to protect proprietary information provided by grant applicants.
But fiscal years 2013 and 2014 saw the lowest level of meeting transparency in the 10 years of data collected for the report.
In fiscal year 2014, just 23 percent of FACA meetings were open. That’s a slight decrease from fiscal year 2013 when 23.2 percent of FACA meetings were completely transparent. Those years also saw the highest number of closed-door meetings in absolute terms — 5,102 in fiscal year 2014 and 5,006 in fiscal year 2013.
Overall, the ratio of open meetings was higher during the George W. Bush years than during the Obama years. Between fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2008, 27.8 percent of federal advisory meetings were open. Between fiscal year 2010 and fiscal year 2014, only 26.2 percent of the meetings were transparent. Fiscal year 2009 comprised portions of both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Obama has on numerous occasions claimed that his administration embraces transparency.
Almost immediately upon his election in Nov. 2008, Obama’s website stated that his would be “the most open and transparent in history.” And he claimed to have lived up to that pledge when, in Feb. 2013, he stated that “this is the most transparent administration in history.”
But as numerous advocates for open government have argued, Obama has failed to meet that transparency pledge. Besides the increase in secretive meetings, watchdogs have pointed to federal agencies’ failures under Obama to meet their statutory requirements under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
That issue has come into the spotlight during the Hillary Clinton email fiasco involving the emails she sent as secretary of state. The White House added to the secrecy when it announced last week that emails between Obama and Clinton would be withheld due to executive privilege.
The Obama administration has also embarked on unprecedented retaliation against whistleblowers and news organizations. In 2012, Obama’s Justice Department, then under the watch of Attorney General Eric Holder, subpoenaed phone records for 20 Associated Press reporters. It also targeted Fox News’ James Rosen and The New York Times’ James Risen in separate cases involving accusations that they mishandled classified information.