WASHINGTON — In the middle of Sunshine Week, when news organizations and advocacy groups promote government transparency, the Obama administration urged Congress on Tuesday to keep secret a whole new category of information even under the Freedom of Information Act.
A few miles away, the White House organized a conference call with two senior administration officials to preview an announcement by President Barack Obama about an important China trade issue but told reporters that no one could be quoted by name. The officials were U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and the deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, Michael Froman.
On Capitol Hill, the director of the Justice Department’s office of information policy, Melanie Ann Pustay, told senators they need to protect against public disclosures of material about cybersecurity, critical U.S. computer networks, industrial plants, pipelines and more. Businesses have sought such a new exemption under the law for at least 10 years.
Obama has promised that his administration will be the most transparent in American history. But events on Tuesday illustrate that old habits die hard.
Pustay told the Senate Judiciary Committee that a Supreme Court ruling in March 2011 narrowed an exemption under the records law and left federal agencies unable to protect secrets about cybersecurity and critical infrastructures, even though the Justice Department since then has recommended at least three other ways under current law to justify withholding such information.
The case involved a retired electrician, Glen Milner, who sought in 2003 to learn more about the types and amounts of explosives stored at the Navy’s nearby Indian Island facility. Milner said he wanted to know whether his family and neighbors were at risk of being blown up.
Pustay said the Supreme Court decision put at risk “a wide range of sensitive material whose disclosure could cause harm,” and urged the Senate to approve a proposal in cybersecurity legislation that would keep it off-limits under the Freedom of Information Act. She said it was unlikely the government’s other methods under existing laws would adequately protect such secrets.
Under the records law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas.
Open government advocates urged lawmakers to proceed carefully.
“Protections against threats we might face as a nation need not and should not include carte blanche authority for the government to withhold information under an exceedingly broad and ill-defined rubric,” said Kenneth F. Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition of Columbia, Mo.
Lawmakers gave no indication whether they would support the change that Pustay sought. Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee’s top Republican, said no one has approached him or his staff about legislative remedies. If the problem is so serious, Grassley asked, why has no one objected?
“Agencies under the control of President Obama’s political appointees have been more aggressive than ever in withholding information from the public and from Congress,” Grassley said. “There’s a complete disconnect between the president’s grand pronouncements about transparency and the actions of his political appointees.”
Sunday was the start of Sunshine Week.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration appears to have decided to keep one more secret. As first reported by Bloomberg, the White House declined to identify the name and vintage of wines it served during the June 2011 state dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and it’s unclear whether it will reveal the wine list for this week’s state dinner when British Prime Minister David Cameron visits. It previously has disclosed such information for previous dinners. The commercial prices for some bottles have exceeded $300.
The White House drew criticism in November 2008 when it hosted a dinner for foreign leaders working to resolve the global economic crisis, and its menu included fruitwood-smoked quail with quince gastrique; quinoa risotto; thyme-roasted rack of lamb; tomato, fennel and eggplant fondue; a salad course of endive, baked brie and walnuts; and a pear torte to cap the meal. Among the wines: bottles of Shafer Cabernet “Hillside Select” 2003 — then about $300 per bottle — for the main course.