OPEN GOVERNMENT -- OpenTheGovernment.org's 2009 Secrecy Report Card chronicles slight decreases in  secrecy across a wide spectrum of indicators in the last year of the Bush-Cheney Administration, according to a press release.

The report, released Wednesday by a coalition of more than 70 open government advocates, also provides a six-month overview of the Obama Administration’s promise and practice on openness issues, and a section on financial transparency during the economic crisis. 

According to Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org, “Promising trends  began to develop in the last year of the Bush Administration, but we have a long way to go to  return to the level of government openness and accountability that existed before the  September 11 attacks.”

While very few quantitative indicators of secrecy exist yet to compare the Obama  Administration to its predecessor, the Special Section on the Obama Administration uses  qualitative examples to discuss the Administration’s openness-promising policies and, in some instances, discouraging practice. Among the issues discussed are: the Open Government  Directive, Classified Information, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), signing statements, use of state secrets, and more.

“The Obama administration so far has a very mixed record on its promise of unprecedented  openness,” said McDermott.  “We look forward to working with the Administration toward  meeting this goal, and will continue to work to make sure the public has the information it  needs to hold this Administration accountable.”

Steven Aftergood comments in his Secrecy News blog :

The new report card was prepared before the announcement last week that White House visitor logs would be publicly released, in response to a lawsuit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.  That step is "historic" and "groundbreaking," the White House said.  It is "a major step into the sunlight," the New York Times enthused in an editorial today, and puts the Obama Administration "well on course to be the most open in modern times."

From our perspective, this seems like a considerable overstatement that mistakes the formalities of openness for the substance.  Laboriously prepared lists of names of visitors to the White House complex provide minimal insight into the policy process.  (Nevermind that a meeting at Caribou Coffee across the street can easily circumvent the new disclosure arrangement.)  A physical visit to the White House is simply not an essential part of the policy process.  If the Bush Administration had not fought so stubbornly to withhold such information, its release would be even less significant.

Given the choice, we would forgo the monthly lists of thousands of names in favor of routine publication of Presidential Policy Directives and Presidential Study Directives, which are fundamental policy documents that do not appear on the Obama White House web site even when they are unclassified.

Despite isolated exceptions, current attempts to steer secrecy policy in a new direction have not yet succeeded -- or failed.  The bumpy road to secrecy reform was surveyed most recently in "How to Keep Secrets: Obama Tries to Get Classification Right" by Clint Hendler in the Columbia Journalism Review, September 2, 2009.