The law, signed last week by President Obama, exempts the SEC from disclosing records or information derived from "surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities." Given that the SEC is a regulatory body, the provision covers almost every action by the agency, lawyers say. Congress and federal agencies can request information, but the public cannot.
Several years ago, the media was confronted by several similar issues involving attempts by the Bush Administration to narrow the provisions of FOIA and exempt certain agencies from having to respond to requests filed under that act. The question that remains in these next few days as the media reports on this story is weather their response will be as condemnatory as it was when George W. Bush was in office.
There are fears that the exemption will be used by the SEC to hide its failures from the public. Gary Aguirre, a former SEC lawyer who has accused the agency of hindering an investigation into the activities of Pequot Asset Management. The company settled insider trading charges out of court earlier this year and paid the SEC $28 million.
The response to the Bush Administration's actions was virtually unanimous with condemnation. The spokespeople of groups such as the National Security Archive and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press were quoted extensively in the mainstream media strenuously opposing the Administration's actions.
Journalists criticized the Bush Administration's lack of transparency in ways they have thus far refused to do so with Obama. A search of for-pay site LexisNexis uncovered the following from the late Daniel Schorr in June of 2006:
LBJ was not the last president to find comfort in secrecy. More recently, President Bush, by executive order, overrode the law providing for the release of presidential papers after 12 years. It may or may not be relevant that this protected his father's files as President Reagan's vice president during the Iran-Contra affair."
And in January of 2009, Rachel Maddow was singing Obama's praises on transparency and firing some parting shots at Bush:
. . . the hallmark of the Bush years, the thing that often made Bush administration law-breaking possible because nobody knew it was happening. The best tool that we, the people, have to break through government secrecy is often the Freedom of Information Act. It was treated as an annoyance, an obstacle to be overcome by the Bush administration.
President Obama issued a memo on transparency, saying "My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government."
However, deeds speak louder than words. Obama's Administration has as at least as much interest in transparency as the next politician. That is, a convenient promise to help get him elected, but never act on. As The Los Angeles Times wrote in March:
The Democratic administration of Barack Obama, who denounced his predecessor, George W. Bush, as the most secretive in history, is now denying more Freedom of Information Act requests than the Republican did.
The attempt by the Coast Guard to keep reporters from seeing the true extent of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and White House staffers using nearby cafes to avoid having their meetings with lobbyists appear in White House records demonstrate the government's continuing commitment to being opaque.
As David Limbaugh wrote on Townhall.com:
You surely know the drill by heart: Barack Obama promised to run the most transparent White House in history -- avoiding lobbyists, publicizing donations and televising health care debates on C-SPAN. You also certainly know that he's broken his pledge in every possible respect.
It remains to be seen if this latest move by a Democratic government, piled on top of the previous ones, will finally get the kind of response similar moves by a Republican government received.