The man keeps his word. On day one, President Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda making access to government records more available, and underscoring a new policy of openness and transparency. “For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city,” the president remarked. “Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

Whether it was the exaggerated claim of state secrets, the constricted, obstructive administration of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rules or the overclassification of government records, past administrations enforced an undemocratic policy of secrecy. Numerous prestigious commissions reviewed our government policies through the past half-century — the late New York Sen. Daniel Moynihan’s commission being the most recent — all concluding it should be reformed dramatically. But that has not been the case.

Recent press reports pointed out that the government classifies between 10 and 17,000 documents every day. Under President George W. Bush classifications rose, declassifications decreased, reclassifications rose and FOIA was frustrated. The secrecy bureaucracy costs the public $7 billion a year, one recent study pointed out.

Turning around these entrenched policies will require oceanic maneuvering. But on day one of his administration, President Obama delivered on his promise. The American public — along with historians, students and other professionals — will profit from this change.


Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington attorney and author whose book, In Confidence: When To Protect Secrecy and When To Require Disclosure, will be published in March by Yale University Press.