The Obama Administration’s FOIA Compliance

Jim Harper has done a lot of work on the Obama administration’s efforts to be more transparent, especially with regard to “sunlight before signing,” earmark data, and FOIA compliance. The Obama administration could do a lot more on the FOIA front.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) recently added a FOIA Project, which lists all FOIA requests that have become the subject of federal litigation since October 1, 2009. This includes an interactive FOIA Map that lets you zoom in and locate lawsuits across the United States.

TRAC has proven an invaluable resource for tracking federal government activities, and has been litigating FOIA requests for years. A recent Supreme Court decision, Milner v. Department of the Navy, reduced the ability of government agencies to withhold data under FOIA exemptions. Undeterred, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official “informed TRAC that those who had requested and been denied access to documents under the FOIA prior to the court’s ground-breaking decision was rendered had no right to obtain them.” More details are available here.

It’s pretty bad when ICE is hiding behind procedural barriers to sidestep FOIA requests; it’s another ballgame entirely at the Department of Homeland Security. DHS officials tried to turn the objective standard of FOIA — disclosure to one is disclosure to all — into a subjective one, looking into the political beliefs of the requester to avoid embarrassment for DHS. An email trail shows how a former Obama staffer asked DHS employees to redact “politically sensitive” details from FOIA releases. Obama officials defended DHS’s FOIA policy in congressional hearings, and a DHS attorney tried to remove exhibits from the hearings. His explanation:

“As counsel for DHS, I object to counsel for the committee’s refusal to allow exhibits they had shown to the witness and that all are e-mail messages from DHS personnel to DHS personnel on their official DHS-issued accounts and use of e-mail services. These are not committee records, these are, rather, DHS records; and so there is no reason the committee should be able to prevent us from taking them, since they have shown them to the witness and used them in this interview.”

The Obama administration declared that it would be “the most open and transparent in history.” It is falling well short of the mark.