Two years after President Obama pledged a new dawning of governmental sunshine, barely half of 90 federal agencies say they’ve made concrete changes in their handling of Freedom of Information Act requests, according to survey findings released Sunday.
While 49 agencies reported changes to their FOIA processes, the remainder either said they had no information or did not respond to the Knight Open Government Survey.
In a similar round-up last year, only 13 agencies reported changes, so this year’s numbers reflect a large uptick. Still, “at this rate, the president’s first term in office will be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office,” said Eric Newton, a senior adviser at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which paid for the study.
The results were released by the National Security Archive, a private research organization based at George Washington University that helped carry out the survey. The findings could offer grist for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on FOIA scheduled for this Thursday.
For the survey, researchers filed FOIA requests asking agencies for copies of changes in their FOIA regulations, manuals, training materials or processing guidance resulting from a 2009 memo from Obama favoring disclosure or from follow-up instructions issued last year.
While several large agencies—including the Defense, Interior and Health and Human Services departments—reported changes, other heavyweights did not. Among them were the Commerce, Energy, State and Education departments. And, oh yes, the Justice Department, the lead agency for carrying out FOIA policy.
Remember Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo last year stating that agencies should administer the Freedom of Information Act with a presumption in favor of disclosure?
One private research organization is wondering whether some of Holder’s subordinates got the message, based on their attempt to thwart full release of a report detailing Nazi-hunting efforts in the United States.
“Here you’ve got the Justice Department flouting the direct guidance of the attorney general,” Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, based at The George Washington University, said Wednesday in a phone interview. “Holder should be outraged.”
The report is a history of the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department unit created in 1979 to find and deport one-time Nazi persecutors living in the United States. But it doesn’t shy away from less inspiring chapters in that story, such as the fact that some alleged persecutors were “knowingly granted entry” into the country by U.S. officials.
When the archive requested the 607-page report under FOIA last fall, the Justice Department initially refused, saying the report was a draft and that disclosure “could harm the integrity of the agency decision-making process,” according to a response posted on the archive’s web site.
Justice officials backed off that stance after the organization sued, but this year released a version that had more than 1,000 redactions based on exemptions for protection of personal privacy and “pre-decisional” memoranda, Blanton said.
Via e-mail, Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said the department is committed to transparency and that attorneys with FOIA expertise make redaction decisions based on considerations under the law.
But the scope of the department’s editing became clear Saturday when The New York Times linked to a leaked copy of the unredacted report on its web site.
In one instance, department officials cited privacy grounds in whiting out most of a footnote that referenced newspaper and wire service articles from 30 years ago. In another, they deleted part of a federal appellate court ruling that raised ethics accusations against Justice Department officials for their handling of another case, according to the Times.
In a statement, the archive’s attorney, David Sobel, accused the department of “withholding information without legal justification.” This week, leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center a Jewish human rights organization, urged President Obama to order official release of the full report, saying “victims of the Holocaust are owed no less.”
The flap is the latest to raise questions about how much effect the Obama administration’s proclaimed tilt in favor of more FOIA disclosure is actually having in practice. “The awareness of administration FOIA policies has yet to translate into a major shift in the FOIA culture across the federal government,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, concluded in a recent review.
For example, the Commerce Department’s inspector general this month reported that Patent and Trademark Office employees for years have been shredding certain data “to minimize requests for such information” under FOIA and by the Patent Office Professional Association. That practice appears to violate the Federal Records Act, the IG said, and will be investigated further.
Tags: Commerce Department, David Sobel, Eric Holder, Freedom of Information Act, Holocaust, Justice Department, National Security Archive, Patent and Trademark Office, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Tom Blanton
Congress has given final approval to legislation shutting down controversial Freedom of Information Act exemptions for the Securities and Exchange Commission, according to its sponsor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The measure now goes to President Obama.
The exemptions, tucked into the financial services overhaul enacted in July, allowed the SEC to withhold some records gathered from hedge funds and other financial entities that it regulates. Without the new provisions, SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro argued, such entities could be reluctant to cooperate during examinations out of concern that sensitive records could become public.
But critics said existing FOIA exemptions were adequate for that purpose and questioned whether the SEC—whose reputation has been marred by its failure early on to catch Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and other lapses—would use the exemptions to shield itself from public scrutiny.
Schapiro denied that intent, but lawmakers were evidently not persuaded. The legislation passed the Senate and the House this week on voice votes.