from the information-wants-to-be-subservient dept
The Freedom of Information Act does open up the government to closer examination by taxpayers. The ideals of the law are rarely achieved, though. It requires agencies to respond in a reasonable amount of time, but far too often it takes a successful lawsuit to force an agency to give up the documents requested.
FOIA requesters are at the mercy of government agencies. If an agency wishes to punish a particularly tenacious FOIA requester, it can do so by unceremoniously dumping requested documents into the public domain, robbing him of any exclusivity. If an agency wants to wait until media heat dies before releasing incriminating/embarrassing documents, it can string along the requester for months or years without fear of reprisal. It's not that there aren't FOIA staffers who truly want to assist requesters, it's that there are far too many reasons agencies might want to stall the release of documents, if not withhold them altogether.
For instance, FOIAed documents can be withheld to allow government agencies to get out ahead of a negative story.
Two top Army generals recently discussed trying to kill an article in The New York Times on concussions at West Point by withholding information so the Army could encourage competing news organizations to publish a more favorable story, according to an Army document.There's not much out there that's uglier than the government burying facts to control a narrative. And, of course, we'd know nothing about it if it weren't for another FOIA request. The biggest problem with how the Army handled this is that the FOIA side of agencies is supposed to be wholly divorced from its other goals. It should be a politically-agnostic process, with the only considerations being whether or not the requested information can actually be requested. The point of the law is to make the government accountable to the public. The process is never supposed to be subservient to the political/PR desires of government officials.
During a Sept. 16 meeting at the Pentagon, the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, recommended to the superintendent at West Point, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr., that the Army delay responding to The Times’s request, according to the document. General Horoho then suggested trying to get The Wall Street Journal or USA Today to publish an article about a more favorable Army study on concussions.
“I recommend you let us publish this article BEFORE you release the FOIA to the NYT reporter,” General Horoho is quoted as saying in the summary, using an acronym for the Freedom of Information Act.
And yet it is. The officials quoted in the released document are claiming the things they said don't represent the things they meant.
Both generals acknowledged the authenticity of the summary, but said it misrepresented their discussion.Well, OK then. But accountability is better served by putting the incriminating information in the public's hands and dealing with the consequences, not burying it until after the advance force spin team has had a chance to work its narrative magic.