Index on Censorship Interviews Geof Stone on Obama's Transparency Record

Assessing Obama’s record on transparency
Emily Badger
Index on Censorship
July 29, 2011

First Amendment scholar Geoffrey R Stone wrote for Index back in 2008 that the American public’s right to know had been one of the greatest casualties of the Bush Administration. A previous colleague of Barack Obama at the University of Chicago Law School, Stone had high hopes that the new president would reverse many of his predecessor’s damaging policies. That has not exactly been the case. This week, Stone sat down with Index to assess Obama’s record on transparency, which, he concludes, may be the single most important — and fragile — civil liberties issue in the age of the War on Terror.

Index: When you wrote for Index at the end of the Bush Administration, the state of the public right’s to know had largely been damaged by government secrecy. At the time, what were you hoping would happen under the Obama Administration?

Stone: I was hopeful that when President Obama took office he would have a much more open sense of the importance of the actions of government being made transparent to the American people. Certainly, that was a theme in his campaign. So I think it was reasonable to expect major change in some of the Bush-era policies.

Index: In some cases, that has happened, particularly around changes Obama has made to Freedom of Information policy and classification standards.

Stone: Right. Most notably, the President has changed the standard for the classification of information. Under President George W Bush, the prior standard was expanded to allow greater classification, so that any material that, if disclosed might have harm to the national security, was to be classified. Under the Clinton Administration, and now under the Obama Administration, the standard was changed to say that classification was permissible only if the potential harm to the national security outweighs the value of the disclosure of the information to the public, which is a more appropriate way to strike the balance between the need of the public to know, and the need of the government to keep things confidential. So, in some respects, the Obama Administration has made significant progress. But in lots of other areas, I think it’s been disappointing.