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Not Bad for First Day on the Job

President Obama had plenty to do yesterday on his first full day in office, including a precautionary do-over of the flubbed oath of office. But one act he took officially yesterday and another he hinted at leave me feeling as if I'm in the political equivalent of hog heaven.

The official act was his issuance of a memorandum instructing all executive departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness in their dealings with the public. Part of my law practice is to represent news organizations in their efforts to gain access to government documents and meetings. It is no secret outside government that the prevailing sentiment within many corners of government in recent years has seemed to be one of tighter secrecy. Some attribute this 9/11. Whatever the reason, the apparent clamp-down has made it harder for reporters and citizens alike to get access to even routine government information, at both the federal and state levels.

Thus it is encouraging that Obama chooses to make the reversal of this trend one of his first official actions. His memorandum directs:

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

Obama's other act yesterday -- expected to be made official today -- was to circulate a draft of his executive order on the fate of detainees at Guantanamo. Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog details what the order reveals about Obama's plan:

A draft of an Executive Order circulating in Washington on Wednesday revealed a plan for, first, a full-scale review of the case of each of the remaining 245 or so prisoners; second, relocation of the prisoners either to the U.S. or to foreign countries with full release for some, and, third, prosecution of some -- though not necessarily in regular civilian courts -- for terrorist-related crimes.

In the meantime, the Order indicated, the government would extend full protection under all humane treaties on prisoners’ rights for those still at Guantanamo, indicating an end to any harsh treatment in violation of four aspects of the Geneva Convention.

As for execution, with regard to both the openness of government information and the closing of Guantanamo, the devil may be in the details, as one commentator suggested. Still, in these opening gestures from the new president, it feels as if the nation has taken an about-face and is now headed in the right direction.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on January 22, 2009 at 11:08 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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