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Will Obama boost transparency before Trump takes office?

President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on 10 November 2016
President Barack Obama shakes hands with President-elect Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on 10 November 2016

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

This statement was originally published on eff.org on 22 November 2016.

There are fewer than 60 days until President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in, but President Barack Obama can still take steps to improve transparency—and therefore government accountability.

In a letter to the Obama administration this week, EFF and other civil liberties groups—including Demand Progress and OpenTheGovernment.org—are asking that he shed some much-needed light on government actions that impact civil liberties ahead of his departure.

“As your administration winds down and our democracy faces strong headwinds, we urge you to take the following important steps to empower citizens, Congress, and the courts to protect our system of separated powers and make sure that our government continues working as the founders intended,” the letter says.

Specifically, the groups are asking Obama to declassify and release significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions, regardless of whether they were issued before the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act in 2015 (something EFF is suing the government to do right now); to release information about opinions from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel opinions, especially those related to national security and civil liberties; and to preserve and release at least limited information about the 2012 Senate report on CIA interrogation.

Obama should also release information about national security- and civil liberties-related Inspector General reports, information about the scope of surveillance of U.S. persons under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and guidance on how the government considers constitutional concerns surrounding parallel construction or the law enforcement practice of finding alternative evidence to bring a case that was built on inadmissible information gathered through intelligence operations.

The letter also calls on Obama to brief Congress and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to help inform their oversight, direct a government-wide review of whether and how agencies are disposing of information about U.S. persons collected through surveillance, publicly acknowledge the lack of whistleblower protections for government contractors, and declare a federal Fred Korematsu Day, in remembrance of victims of the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Obama may be on his way out of the White House, but these are specific, concrete things he can do to ensure that the public, our representatives, and the courts are equipped with as much information as possible to provide a check on future administrations.

As the letter says, “No less than our shared legacy of a vibrant democratic government is at stake.”

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