Interior Department Putting Even More Effort Into Dodging FOIA Request
from the some-motivations-are-stronger-than-others dept
The Department of the Interior is still trying to remove the word “freedom” from “Freedom of Information Act.” The first step is removing the word “information.”
Earlier this year, the DOI tried to sneak past a rewrite of FOIA by hiding a request in the federal register. It would only apply to the DOI, hence the lack of legislative noise or heads up to the public. Under the guise of “ensuring compliance” with the law, the DOI wanted the power to unilaterally reject any request it found “burdensome.”
Faced with an influx of requests, the DOI decided to double down on non-compliance. Rather than route more staff to the overburdened FOIA response team, the DOI decided it would be better served by tossing as many requests in the trashcan as possible.
A few months have passed, but the Interior Department’s attitude towards transparency hasn’t improved. In fact, it’s gotten worse. The DOI’s best and brightest continue to work tirelessly towards ensuring as little information is freed as is humanly possible. Roll Call, which first exposed this underhanded tactic in May, has more details on the DOI’s flagrant disregard for FOIA’s statutory requirements.
Documents sought under the Freedom of Information Act were withheld by the Interior Department under a practice that allowed political appointees to review the requests, internal emails and memos show.
The policy allowed high-ranking officials to screen documents sought by news organizations, advocacy groups and whistleblowers, including files set to be released under court deadlines. In some cases, the documents’ release was merely delayed. In other cases, documents were withheld after the reviews.
The department’s spokesperson confirmed the new review procedure’s existence while pointing out officials were under no obligation to release documents after review. Furthermore, the spokesperson asserted that any suggestion there’s an “affirmative response requirement” following review is “driven by political motives.” In other words, the suggestion the DOI might be dodging its FOIA obligations is just some sort of partisan slur.
Wonderful. Even FOIA has been politicized under this administration, which views government transparency with considerable side eye, considering many requests originate from members of the Fake News Media™.
But persistent requesters have managed to pry loose some documents from the close-fisted DOI. And those documents show staff and officials thwarting internal processes and removing hundreds of pages of responsive documents before turning them over to requesters.
After Joel Clement, a whistleblower, sued the department under FOIA to release records about being reassigned from his post, Interior Communications Director Laura Rigas interceded. Career FOIA officials in March 2018 identified 1,558 pages of “responsive” documents it planned to release — a number that was eventually pared down to just 49 after the review process.
“I have concerns about items in here [redacted],” Rigas said to Ryan McQuighan, a career records official.
Unfortunately, these internal communications are heavily-redacted so it’s unclear what legal justifications — if any — DOI officials are using to keep documents away from requesters. What’s on display here suggests DOI officials are more interested in protecting themselves than following the letter of the law. There are multiple exemptions the government may use to justify withholding information, but the requesters’ (or requestees’) political interests or motivations aren’t among the exemptions.
But that seems to be what’s happening. Requests by whistleblowers and environmental activists seem to be the ones most frequently targeted for official review — at least according to the communications obtained by Earthjustice via a FOIA lawsuit.
Although this isn’t how FOIA is supposed to work, this is how FOIA actually works. Government agencies are obligated to respond within a certain period of time and hand over responsive documents. In reality, the timetable is often extended indefinitely and documents are routinely withheld to prevent bad press over departmental embarrassment. The DOI is just doing what’s become routine at federal agencies — only it’s doing it with a bit more attitude than most, not-so-subtly letting requesters know their chances of getting what they asked for are incredibly slim.