“My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”
— Barack Obama
So wrote President Barack Obama, back on Jan. 29, 2009, just days into his presidency. “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
Now, six years into the Obama administration, his promise of “a new era of open government” seems just another grand promise, cynically broken.
As the news industry observed its annual Sunshine Week in mid-March, the Associated Press reported that “more often than ever, the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.”
The AP report continued, “The government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.”
This comes as no surprise to Ryan Shapiro, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who just filed a federal lawsuit against the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, seeking public records pertaining to the U.S. role in the 1962 arrest of Nelson Mandela, which would land him in prison for 27 years. When his FOIA requests on Mandela were denied, he sued.
“I’m pursuing these records,” he explained to me, “mostly because I’m interested in knowing why the U.S. intelligence community viewed Mandela as a threat to American security and what role the U.S. intelligence community played in thwarting Mandela’s struggle for racial justice and democracy in South Africa.”
Shapiro filed a FOIA request with the NSA, seeking details on the arrest of Mandela over 50 years ago. The NSA wrote in reply, “To the extent that you are seeking intelligence information on Nelson Mandela, we have determined that the fact of the existence or non-existence of the materials you request is a currently and properly classified matter.” Half a century later?