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NPR Brushes Aside Transparency Concerns at DOJ Civil Rights Unit

On Tuesday's Morning Edition, NPR's Carrie Johnson highlighted critiques of the Obama White House from the left on their promise to be "the most transparent administration in history," but downplayed questions over the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Unit's use of non-disclosure agreements with companies under investigation.

Host Renee Montagne introduced Johnson's report, noting that "in Washington, D.C., some people are calling this 'Sunshine Week.' It's a time of year when government watchdog groups evaluate the administration's commitment to openness. Two years ago, President Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in history."

After playing a clip of Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli underlining the importance of transparency, the NPR correspondent continued with two sound bites from Steven Aftergood of Federation of American Scientists, who stated that "expectations were raised so high at the beginning of the administration that some disappointment was almost inevitable." She added that "Aftergood says the Obama administration has made some huge breakthroughs, such as sharing the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time," but the FAS project director himself slammed the "continuing backlogs...obstruction...[and] lack of cooperation or commitment or even implementation of explicit instructions from the President."

Johnson also cited a "new study by the National Security Archive found about half of government agencies have changed their approach to sharing information since Mr. Obama put out a memo promoting the idea in 2009. That means half still haven't gotten with the program." But she didn't mention the liberal political leanings of either the National Security Archive or the FAS at any point during her report.

Later, the correspondent played a third clip from Aftergood who criticized HUD and the Treasury Department for asking "lobbyists to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to take part in talks about rental housing." Even after playing the FAS director's critique, she ended her report by reporting about how the DOJ Civil Rights Unit does something similar, with only the government's promise of future transparency: "The Justice Department says it's in the middle of negotiations with several companies, and while those talks continue, they need to keep their thinking quiet. If and when those cases settle, though, a department spokeswoman says all of that information will come out into the sunshine."

The full transcript of Carrie Johnson's report from Tuesday's Morning Edition:

RENEE MONTAGNE: Here in Washington, D.C., some people are calling this 'Sunshine Week.' It's a time of year when government watchdog groups evaluate the administration's commitment to openness. Two years ago, President Obama promised to run the most transparent administration in history. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on how that's going.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Like a lot of federal agencies, the Obama Justice Department is celebrating government 'Sunshine Week.' An honor guard of military volunteers in full dress uniform marched colorful flags into the building's great hall Monday. (audio of military honor guard)

JOHNSON: Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli talked to an audience filled with federal workers. He says there's a simple reason why public access to information matters.

ASSOCIATE ATTORNEY GENERAL TOM PERRELLI: You've often heard it said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the recognition is that, for us to do better, it's critically important for the public to know what we're doing.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: Expectations were raised so high at the beginning of the administration that some disappointment was almost inevitable.

JOHNSON: That's Steven Aftergood. He directs the project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. Aftergood says the Obama administration has made some huge breakthroughs, such as sharing the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal for the first time.

AFTERGOOD: On the other hand, though, we still have continuing backlogs. We have obstruction. We have a lack of cooperation or commitment or even implementation of explicit instructions from the President.

JOHNSON: A new study by the National Security Archive found about half of government agencies have changed their approach to sharing information since Mr. Obama put out a memo promoting the idea in 2009. That means half still haven't gotten with the program.

Last month, Republican lawmaker Judy Biggert of Illinois asked an inspector general to investigate the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She found out that HUD and Treasury had asked lobbyists to sign non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to take part in talks about rental housing. A spokesman for HUD says the federal government was only trying to get the best information, and protect trade secrets of companies involved in the talks. The inspector general says the practice didn't seem to violate the law, because the administration was looking for input, not formal guidance. But Aftergood, who studies government secrecy, has some qualms about the practice.

AFTERGOOD: When you shut the doors and you allow some outsiders in, but not others, you inevitably skew the process. So, it's not good government, it's not good policy, and it just seems like a mistake.

JOHNSON: Another source told NPR that the Justice Department's Civil Rights Unit has been asking companies under investigation to sign non-disclosure agreements too. People who sign the agreements promise to protect the confidentiality of the government's legal theories and analysis. The source says they also promise to tell the Justice Department before sharing any information with Congress. The Justice Department says it's in the middle of negotiations with several companies, and while those talks continue, they need to keep their thinking quiet. If and when those cases settle, though, a department spokeswoman says all of that information will come out into the sunshine. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

- Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.