In the interest of full disclosure

Opaque reasoning is thwarting transparency in government



It may be easier to get a mug shot of a foreign terrorist than one of an Augusta criminal headed for federal prison.

That's got to change.

Get ready for this. Your head may explode when you read it:

This newspaper asked federal authorities for a current mug shot of Augusta "investor" Walter Marion Williams, who reported to a federal prison in Montgomery, Ala., last Tuesday to begin a nine-year sentence for stealing $1.7 million from more than a dozen friends and relatives. Williams had promised to invest the funds, and took people's nest eggs on that basis only to use the money for his own comfort and adventures, including gambling trips and fun vacations.

Here's what may light the fuse leading to your brain: Federal officials denied the request because release of Williams' photo "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

You can't make this stuff up. This man bilked Augustans out of $1.7 million, and we're in danger of invading his privacy by running a photo of him?

Now, it may not be important to you whether the media have current photos of criminals (we ended up running an outdated one of Williams). But think about it some more.

For one thing, who's to say whether there might be other victims of Williams' scams out there unknown to authorities and who might recognize their tormentor's image?

And if not in this particular case, victims of crimes in other cases might also come forward after seeing an offender's face in the media.

In addition, the principle may be the most important thing: There is no reason for our government to be hiding facts and photos of criminals in our midst, especially long after a case has been adjudicated and the responsible party shipped off to prison.

Moreover, whither this administration's vaunted promises of unprecedented transparency?

Nate Jones is apparently wondering the same thing. The Freedom of Information Act coordinator for the National Security Archive lamented in a magazine article that his agency's requests for information from other federal agencies are often met with "disappointing" obfuscation.

"We at the Archive have yet to see the government's full embrace of this 'presumption of disclosure'," Jones wrote -- adding that only 13 of some 90 federal agencies made any changes in transparency after President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder directed them to in a memo at the start of the Obama presidency.

"All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government," the memo said.

Mission not accomplished.

In fact, the Associated Press reported last March that there was a nearly 50 percent increase in federal agencies' denials of records requests under the Freedom of Information Act in Obama's first year in office.

In short, despite public pronouncements to the contrary -- "President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history," wrote Macon Phillips, White House director of New Media, in January 2009 -- the Obama administration has been more secretive than the previous one.

The Chronicle has appealed the decision in the Williams case. We hope the U.S. Department of Justice will see fit to reverse its position and act according to the president's lofty words.

But problems with transparency are, sadly enough, alive and well at all levels of government, even in 2010 America.

One mug shot may not seem important. But rights, like canyons, are eroded a little at a time.