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Transparency Groups Urge Obama To Involve Public In Executive Order Revisions

Obamabush

First Posted: 09/06/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:45 PM ET

As President Obama prepares to modify the rules of executive power, 21 public advocacy groups and individuals are fighting to make sure he fulfills his promise to "restore the American people's trust in their government by making government more open and transparent."

In a letter written to General James L. Jones, Obama's National Security Advisor, the wide-reaching coalition requests that "the public be given an opportunity...to provide comment on the actual language of the proposed Executive Order revisions."

The main goal is to prevent abuse of executive power, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, and a signatory of the letter. He said executive power expanded under the Bush administration, much to the country's detriment.

"Several of the most momentous and disastrous policy decisions of the last decade were made under conditions of extreme secrecy," Aftergood told the Huffington Post, citing the decision to invade Iraq, the warrantless domestic surveillance program and the use of torture as examples. "These were choices that could not be made in the light of day," he added.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama frequently criticized President Bush for a lack of transparency and reckless use of executive privilege. Obama pledged to reverse these transgressions if elected president.

Patrice McDermott, director of the coalition's leader, OpenTheGovernment.org, gives Obama an A- / B+ on transparency so far, but has some reservations, which prompted her to initiate this effort. "On issues that have to do with the exercise of executive power, like the state secrets issue, not so good," she said of Obama's performance.

McDermott is "hopeful" that the president would fulfill the request to release a draft of revisions to the public. "It's not us inserting ourselves into the process where the real negotiations with the agencies are going on -- it's just a final check for accountability," she said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

"We believe this recommended approach best serves the President and, most importantly, the nation," the letter reads. "It is also consistent with, if not essential to, the President's commitment to make his administration the most open and transparent in history."

Aftergood, while pleased with some of Obama's changes, still isn't happy with the status quo. So far, "the rule seems to be aggressive secrecy" with Obama, he said, referring to "state secrets privilege, or the names of visitors to the White House, and a whole host of other things."

Laying out the challenges involved in achieving greater openness, Aftergood said "no agency has an interest in surrendering its own autonomy. No one wants stronger oversight than they can get away with, and no one wants their own freedom of action limited. But that is what needs to be done here."

"My hope and my commitment is that it will change," he continued. "But it won't happen by itself. Every step will have to be fought for. That's what we've come to understand."

Aftergood and McDermott hope that the new order will be finalized and signed in the next few months.

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