Documents show Obama administration schemed to block FOIA

The Obama administration has taken a lot of well-deserved criticism over the years for claiming to be the most transparent presidency ever while actually being remarkably opaque, but they’ve now reached a new low: newly released documents show they aggressively lobbied Congress to kill bipartisan transparency reform that was based on the administration’s own policy.

In a move open government advocates are calling “ludicrous”, the administration “strongly opposed” the passage of bipartisan Freedom of Information Act (Foia) reform behind closed doors in 2014. The bill was a modest and uncontroversial piece of legislation which attempted to modernize the law for the internet age and codify President Obama’s 2009 memo directing federal agencies to adopt a “presumption of openness”.

Through a Foia lawsuit, the Freedom of the Press Foundation (the organization I work for) obtained a six-page talking points memo that the Justice Department distributed to House members protesting virtually every aspect of the proposed legislation in incredibly harsh language – despite the fact that some of the provisions were based almost word-for-word on the Justice Department’s own supposed policy (you can see a side-by-side comparison here).

Worse, Vice’s Jason Leopold is also reporting that the administration is conducting similar lobbying efforts around this year’s attempt to reform Foia in time for the law’s 50th anniversary this summer.

This is a shameful move by an administration that is constantly touting its open government and transparency bona fides despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

Foia is the nation’s most important transparency law, but ask any journalist and they will tell you the Foia process is irrevocably broken. There are countless horror stories of reporters getting back info on Foia requests five or seven years after they asked for it – and those are the lucky ones who get a response at all (agencies are supposed to respond within 20 days). Often, the only way to get any information out of federal agencies is to file a lawsuit – an action that takes time, effort and a lot of money that journalists or news organizations don’t often have.

Obama was supposed to fix this. On his first day in office, he signed a directive that mandated a “presumption of openness” in government, and his first attorney general, Eric Holder, followed up with a detailed memo to federal agencies for how they should respond to Foia requests to facilitate more transparency. Unfortunately, numerous studies have since shown that redactions of government documents have increased by record amounts during the Obama years, federal agencies have failed to fulfil their obligations and the administration has fought major transparency lawsuits in court.

Open-government advocates in Congress have been trying to pass a law modernizing Foia for over 10 years, and almost did so in 2014: a set of Foia bills had unanimous support in Congress in 2014 – unheard of in today’s political climate – but mysteriously died right before the final vote at the end of the congressional session.

At the time it was unclear why, given that the bills had been watered down to exclude any “controversial” provisions that would have substantively changed the way the government releases information, and that more robust fixes to the law supported by transparency advocates were removed from the bill. The Obama administration had no public position on the bill during the debate, but now we know it was likely failed due in large part to the Obama administration’s aggressive lobbying efforts to stop it.

Next week is “Sunshine Week”, an annual Washington DC tradition where transparency issues are highlighted in and out of government. It’s likely that members of Congress will again publicly debate similar legislation – this time, sadly, an even weaker version. The Obama administration should do the right thing and support strong transparency reform; it’s clear they can’t be trusted without it.

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