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Holding the Government Accountable

Open Government Advocates Meet with POTUS: A Firsthand Account

Updated 3/31/2011

Photograph of POTUS at doorway

Yesterday afternoon, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian—along with OMB Watch Executive Director Gary Bass, Director Patrice McDermott, National Security Archive Executive Director Tom Blanton, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Lucy Dalglish—met with President Obama about open government issues. The meeting was originally scheduled to occur during Sunshine Week, but was postponed. Here’s Danielle’s account of the meeting.

I approached our meeting with President Obama yesterday with trepidation. From my perspective the meeting would have been a dismal failure if my colleagues (OMB Watch Executive Director Gary Bass, Director Patrice McDermott, National Security Archive Executive Director Tom Blanton and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Executive Director Lucy Dalglish) and I were simply given a photo op in the oval office as we honored the President for his stated commitment to open government. Our time with the President was expected to be short, and we were warned there is a rule that there be absolutely no "asks"—in other words no lobbying—in the Oval Office. We needed to be very careful with every word, both not to waste time, but also not to violate any ethics rules.

I believe strongly that POGO's effectiveness is enhanced by occasionally wielding a carrot while continuing to hold the proverbial stick in our other hand. With regard to the Obama Administration's progress on open government, there is no doubt we still have a long litany of problems. But if we take for granted a sitting President who has used his bully pulpit to emphasize the need to change the way we think about access to government information, our cause is likely to be forgotten among the many other presidential priorities. And some progress has undeniably been made in the past two years. The meeting was originally scheduled two weeks ago during Sunshine Week, but that meeting was postponed at literally the last minute. Some scoffed that this was evidence of his lack of commitment to the issue. It didn't help that ESPN ran a lengthy segment with the President making his March Madness picks that day.

So...what happened. Yesterday, President Obama opened the door to the Oval Office and ushered us in with a joke about how he hoped we were all going to be listed in the White House visitor logs, which are open to the public (thanks to litigation by Citizens

for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, aka CREW). Both a photographer and a videographer were also in the room. I had expected a more formal "ceremony" with our having to scramble to ensure time to highlight where we thought there were the major issues that needed more significant change. Instead, the entire meeting was informal and the President was clearly engaged.

He began the discussion by thanking us for recognizing his commitment, as well as acknowledging we are probably also there to let him know we aren't satisfied with the pace and scope of change. He reaffirmed what he has said since his first minutes in office: that he believes open government strengthens our democracy.

Gary, OMB Watch’s executive director, focused on the places where we have seen real change, including the Open Government Directive, the Executive Orders on Classified National Security and Controlled Unclassified Information, emphasis on affirmative disclosures of government information; and the President's support of reporters’ privilege and shield law, as well as whistleblower protections.

Lucy, executive director for Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, pointed out that this was the first president in her 30 years of working in this field who had invited open government advocates into the Oval Office. She specifically thanked him for his strong support of a reporters' shield law, which he affirmed he continues to support. Tom, executive director for the National Security Archive, emphasized that when it comes to FOIA reform and implementation we know it isn't just a ship of state, but an entire flotilla including rowboats. And that while there has been notable improvement according to the National Security Archive's survey of agencies, there continues to need be a need for leadership from the top to change cultures across the vast swath of government agencies. He also noted that we all believe the information we want to see is not simply that which is useful for consumers, but also that which holds the government accountable.

I knew my topic was likely to be sensitive. I began by thanking the President for his strong support of whistleblower protections, and noted that it was not for lack of effort on the part of the White House that the legislation didn't pass at the end of the last Congress.

I noted, however, that the current aggressive prosecution of national security whistleblowers is undermining this legacy. That we need to create safe channels for disclosure of wrongdoing in national security

agencies. That we need to work harder to shrink the amount of over-classified materials that unnecessarily prompt leak prosecutions.

The President shifted in his seat and leaned forward. He said he wanted to engage on this topic because this may be where we have some differences. He said he doesn't want to protect the people who leak to the media war plans that could impact the troops. He differentiated these leaks from those whistleblowers exposing a contractor getting paid for work they are not performing. I was careful not to interrupt the President, but waited until he was done. I pointed out that few, if any, in our community would disagree with his distinction—but that in reality the current prosecutions are not of those high-level officials who regularly leak to the press to advance their policy agendas. Instead, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is prosecuting exactly the kind of whistleblower he described, for example one from the National Security Agency.

The President then did something that I think was remarkable. He said this is an incredibly difficult area and he wants to work through how to do a better job in handling it. He also agreed that too much information is classified, and asked us to work with his office on this. He wasn't defensive nor was he dismissive. It was perhaps the dream moment for an advocate—hearing the most senior policymaker agree with you and offer to work together to tackle the problem.

Patrice,’s executive director, naturally segued into our concerns about the Administration's use of state secrets privilege and the need for it to be used more surgically to protect secrets but not prevent someone who has been wronged to seek redress, as well as the need for judicial review. The President again agreed with our premise.

The meeting, which had been scheduled for 10 minutes, lasted a little over 20. Rather than it being a photo op, it was everything we hoped: We returned POTUS attention to the need to do more to open the government, while giving him appropriate accolades for his having put the issues on the table in the first place.

Also, Chief White House Counsel Bob Bauer witnessed the entire exchange and then ushered us up the narrow stair case up to his second floor wood-paneled corner office. That meeting, which also included Steve Croley of the Domestic Policy Council, lasted over an hour (although he had to leave twice). During that meeting we discussed much more specifically reforms that would advance our shared agenda. We scheduled a follow up meeting for next week.

Yes, proof of success will not be evident for a while. But for those who cynically derided this meeting as giving the President a pass, I would suggest that successful advocacy sometimes requires acknowledging the glass is even a quarter full—and then sitting down to do something about how to fill up the rest of the glass.

P.S. It turns out the ESPN segment had been taped the night before.

Danielle Brian is POGO's Executive Director.

Image: the White House.

Correction: This post originally read: "Yesterday, President Obama opened the door to the Oval Office and ushered us in with a joke about how he hoped we were all going to be listed in the White House visitor logs, which are open to the public (thanks to litigation by Judicial Watch and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington)." The White House agreed to release some visitor logs after being sued by CREW. Judicial Watch later filed a lawsuit as part of an effort to obtain additional visitor logs.