Sunshine Week is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy established in March 2005. Occurring each year in mid-March, coinciding with James Madison‘s birthday and National Freedom of Information Day on the 16th.
President Obama rewrote the Freedom of Information Act in secret. The rewrite came in an April 15, 2009, memo from then-White House Counsel Greg Craig instructing the executive branch to let White House officials review any documents sought by FOIA requestors that involved “White House equities.”
That phrase is nowhere to be found in the FOIA, yet the Obama White House effectively amended the law to create a new exception to justify keeping public documents locked away from the public.
A serious breach.
The Greg memo is described in detail in a new study made public today by Cause of Action, a Washington-based nonprofit watchdog group that monitors government transparency and accountability.
How serious an attack on the public’s right to know is the Obama administration’s invention of the “White House equities” exception?
“FOIA is designed to inform the public on government behavior; White House equities allow the government to withhold information from the media, and therefore the public, by having media requests forwarded for review. This not only politicizes federal agencies, it impairs fundamental First Amendment liberties,” Cause of Action explains in its report.
Equities are everything
The equities exception is breathtaking in its breadth. As the Greg memo put it, any document request is covered, including “congressional committee requests, GAO requests, judicial subpoenas and FOIA requests.”
And it doesn’t matter what format the documents happen to be in because, according to Greg, the equities exception “applies to all documents and records, whether in oral, paper, or electronic form, that relate to communications to and from the White House, including preparations for such communications.”
Forget FOIA deadlines
The FOIA requires federal agencies to respond within 20 days of receiving a request, but the White House equities exception can make it impossible for an agency to meet that deadline.
In one case cited by Cause of Action, the response to a request from a Los Angeles Times reporter to the Department of the Interior for “communications between the White House and high-ranking Interior officials on various politically sensitive topics” was delayed at least two years by the equities review.
“Cause of Action is still waiting for documents from 16 federal agencies, with the Department of Treasury having the longest pending request of 202 business days.
“The Department of Energy is a close second at 169 business days. The requests to the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services have been pending for 138 business days,” the report said.
So much for “the most transparent administration in history.”
An Associated Press analysis of federal data found that the Obama administration has grown more secretive over time, last year censoring or outright denying FOIA access to government files more than ever since Obama took office.
The administration has also cited more legal exceptions to justify withholding materials and refused to turn over newsworthy files quickly, and most agencies took longer to answer records requests, according to the AP study.
A separate report from the National Security Archives found that 54 percent of all agencies have ignored directives that Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder issued in 2009 calling for a “presumption of disclosure” with FOIA requests. The good news: That number is down from about 70 percent of agencies last year.
The National Security Archives also found that nearly half of all federal agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations to comply with 2007 amendments Congress made to the law. The changes require agencies to cooperate with a new FOIA ombudsman in the Office of Government Information Services and report specific data on FOIA output, among other provisions.
The National Security Archive, which claims to file more FOIA requests than any other group, gathers and publishes declassified U.S. government files, with a focus on U.S. foreign policy documents.
In a third analysis, the Center for Effective Government released its annual government-transparency report card on Monday, handing out failing grades to seven of the 15 agencies it reviewed. The scores are based on three metrics: processing requests for information, establishing rules for answering requests and creating user-friendly Web sites.
Chart from the Information Security Oversight Office 2012 report to the president showing more than 95,180,243 classification decisions in 2012.
Sources: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2014/03/17/sunshine-week-transparency-issues-persist-with-obama-administration/ , http://washingtonexaminer.com/most-transparent-white-house-ever-rewrote-the-foia-to-suppress-politically-sensitive-docs/article/2545824