January 30, 2009

C.U. Historians Praise Obama's Policy on Information Freedom

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Cornell’s historians — professors, graduate students and archivists — see President Barack Obama’s policies toward a more transparent government not merely as a step forward, but a complete reversal in direction.
On Jan. 21, Obama released a memo in which he encouraged governmental agencies to “adopt a presumption of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in the Freedom of Information Act and to usher in a new era of open government.”
The act, which allowed for the disclosure of most official governmental documents, was first instated in 1966 during the Lyndon Johnson’s Administration.
“FOIA was built on a presumption of openness and disclosure rather than secrecy,” explained Prof. Fredrick Logevall, history.
Many of Cornell’s historians believe that Obama’s statements mark a change from President George W. Bush’s policy that limited the FOIA.
Some Cornell historians also claimed that the Bush administration’s regulations inappropriately impeded an academic quest for information.
“One of the key levels to maintain a free open democracy is through high levels of transparency,” said Michael Schmidli grad. “Arbitrary classifications are roadblocks for academics … and [they] impede their process.”
Logevall explained that Bush limited FOIA after Sept. 11, 2001 by allowing government agencies to deny a much broader range of FOIA requests and by allowing former presidents and their heirs to deny the public of their own executive documents.
“There was a pretty huge uproar in the American Historical Association. They had a lot of articles in their monthly pamphlet when Bush changed FOIA regulations,” said Prof. Ileen Devault, industrial and labor relations.
In response to Obama’s recent statements, there has been much applause amongst the broader community of historians and archivists, and within the Cornell community.
“This was all over the archivist list-serve last week,” said Curtis Lyons, director of the Kheel Center for Labor-Management-Documentation and Archives at the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. “The concepts of modern archives really started during the French Revolution. [There] was the understanding that you could not have a government that was responsible for the people unless the people knew what was going on in government. This still holds true.”
Lyons also criticized the Bush Administration for using what were intended to be “reasonable charges” for FOIA requests as a means to prevent the requests, rather than a way to simply compensate the work it entails to retrieve the requested document. He said that there were cases of FOIA requests being granted for a high price, but the documents released had almost everything blacked out aside from a few scattered words.
Schmidli attacked what he called “the heart” of the Bush Administration’s attitude towards FOIA. He compared FOIA and the accessibility of executive documents to the legal mantra “innocent until proven guilty.” He said that documents should be available and open to the public until they are proven sensitive.
“Bush was moving things in the opposite direction,” Schmidli said.
Other than satisfaction in the ideology and attitude behind the liberalization of FOIA regulations, there is the hope that questions will be answered and political research will be more fruitful.
“There is all kinds of stuff we don’t know, an endless list of things we historians would like to know about the invasion of Iraq,” said Logevall. “Diplomatic history is very much dependent on access to these documents.”
“The secrecy of the Bush administration made it really challenging for historians to really get at what was going on in the White House, at the big issues. It was just a major obstacle to good scholarship,” said Schmidili.
Additionally, the enthusiasm over the changes seemed to reach Cornell’s historians on a non-academic level. “The reason I’m encouraged is that it suggests that the flow of information will increase … with this flow, public faith in government will go up, at least a little bit,” said Logevall.
Devault agreed. “It is exciting to me as a citizen, rather than a historian, to think that things will be loosened up now,” she said.
Despite the excitement, there are still concerns about what the next four years will truly bring. “I’ve watched politics for a long time … it may not be as free and open as we all fantasize,” said Devault.