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FOIA Request Results In Details Of Administration's War On FOIA Reform

from the presume-openness,-but-don't-you-dare-act-on-that-presumption dept

Do you like irony? Documents obtained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation (and shared with Jason Leopold of Vice) through an FOIA request show how the Obama administration and various agencies worked together to dismantle FOIA reform efforts. “Presumption of openness,” my [REDACTED].

The documents confirm longstanding suspicions about the administration’s meddling, and lay bare for the first time how it worked to undermine FOIA reform bills that received overwhelming bipartisan support and were unanimously passed by both the House and Senate in 2014 — yet were never put up for a final vote.

Jason Leopold has also obtained some documents of his own. These show the SEC and FTC were also instrumental in preventing the FOIA reform bill from landing on the President’s desk.

It’s an annual tradition. Legislators will offer up an FOIA reform bill, usually with broad support, and it will end up going nowhere. Too many agencies would prefer to leave the FOIA as it is — intermittently useful but far too often reliant on lawsuits and endless appeals to wrest documents out of the government’s hands. Exemptions are abused and agencies further contribute to the general opacity by ever-so-slowly upgrading their digital document-handling capabilities and outdated (and incomplete) search systems.

As Leopold notes, the 2014 effort to reform the Freedom of Information Act passed out of the House with a 410-0 vote. And then it was left to die as agencies like the DOJ and SEC stepped in to halt forward progress.

The administration released its own talking points in opposition of the reform effort, claiming that any more openness would throw the machinery of government into disarray.

The White House claimed it would increase the FOIA backlog, result in astronomical costs, and cause unforeseen problems with processing requests, according to a secret six-page DOJ set of talking points turned over to the Freedom of the Press Foundation along with 100 pages of internal DOJ emails about the FOIA bill.

The DOJ pushed back the hardest. And the administration not only allowed it to do this, but actively supported it in its efforts.

Remarkably, the talking points go on to say that the DOJ opposed the administration’s own instructions that called on agencies to act with the “presumption of openness” as stipulated in Holder’s guidelines and Obama’s presidential memo. The DOJ, they said, would “strongly oppose” any attempts to codify it into law.

Despite its opposition to codifying a “presumption of openness,” the DOJ considers itself to be the paragon of governmental transparency.

Last year, in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Melanie Pustay, who heads the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), which is supposed to ensure that all government agencies adhere to Holder’s guidelines, told lawmakers that the DOJ is doing a great job with FOIA. She graded the agency five out five on “presumption of openness.”

A completely laughable assertion. At least someone called out the DOJ for this statement.

“Five out of five, on an effective system in place for responding. Proactive disclosure. Are you kidding me?” Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz asked Pustay. “The Department of Justice gives themselves a five out of five on proactive disclosure. You really think anybody in the world believes the Department of Justice is the most — they’re at the top of their game, they got an A-plus, five for five? Do you really believe that?”

No one believes that. Not even the DOJ. The FBI is more secretive than the CIA. And both the DEA and FBI have a long history of refusing to turn over documents to the DOJ’s Inspector General, to say nothing about the general public.

Suspicions of administration intervention were raised after then-Speaker of the House John Boehner simply sat on the bill until the last legislative session of the year closed in December 2014. But no one’s been able to obtain any solid information to back up theories or confirm the agencies most instrumental in killing the bill. Legislators aren’t talking about it. Administration officials won’t discuss it. So, the same tool the administration won’t fix was used to find out why it won’t — and which agencies fought back the hardest.

The balance of power in the government is such that it only takes a few recalcitrant agencies and a few cooperative legislators to effectively nullify the wishes of senators and representatives who passed the reform bills unanimously. That the administration had their back is no surprise. Despite its bogus claims of “most transparent administration ever,” this administration has done more to decrease accountability and transparency than any other administration to date.

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Comments on “FOIA Request Results In Details Of Administration's War On FOIA Reform”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Let’s be honest: Yes the FOIA does generate work and costs money. It is simpler do deny everything so that everybody knows that they have to fight and sue before anything is accomplished. Result are fewer FOIA requests and less money spent.
The Administration hat nothing to gain from FOIA so they don’t care and like the system as it is. Beeing abel to say they are transparent (to ridiculous levels) and not having to do more than the bare minimum.
The same basic as redlight cameras, plea bargains, civil forfeiture etc.

Doing the right thing is hard and costs money (or generates less) but should this be acceptable? This is the real question.

(Or more realistic: How much of this is acceptable? And shouldn’t they be honest upfront?)

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