These remarks are excerpted from a speech by President Obama on Jan. 22, as he welcomed senior staff and cabinet secretaries to the White House.
The way to make a government responsible is not simply to enlist the services of responsible men and women, or to sign laws that ensure that they never stray. The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served.
The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that. For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.
To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law.
I will also hold myself as president to a new standard of openness. Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former president wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the attorney general and the White House counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution.
Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why, as of today, I'm directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans—scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs—because the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
The executive orders and directives I'm issuing today will not by themselves make government as honest and transparent as it needs to be. And they do not go as far as we need to go towards restoring accountability and fiscal restraint in Washington. But these historic measures do mark the beginning of a new era of openness in our country. And I will, I hope, do something to make government trustworthy in the eyes of the American people in the days and weeks, months and years to come. That's a pretty good place to start.