Barack Obama pledged to preside over the "most transparent administration in history," drawing an explicit contrast with the extreme secrecy of his predecessor. The Web site of the Department of Justice highlights that pledge, declaring its commitment to faithfully carry out a presidential directive encouraging such transparency, especially with regards to Freedom of Information Act requests, which are a vital tool for public accountability and informed democratic deliberation about government's activities. Earlier this summer, I decided I'd put that commitment to what should have been an easy test.
When Congress passed the controversial FISA Amendments Act of 2008, granting the NSA broad power to conduct sweeping electronic surveillance of Americans' international communications without individualized search warrants, it wisely required the Justice Department to issue semi-annual reports to Congress on the government's implementation of the law, evaluating compliance with the various rules, guidelines, and procedures in place to reduce the risk of civil liberties abuses. While these reports are classified, redacted versions of several previous installments have been released to the public in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. The most recent is from May of 2010, which means that by now there are three or four further reports on the government's use of its new spying powers which haven't been seen by the public.