Sunshine Week renews debate on Obama and FOIA


(Charles Dharapak/AP)
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In a speech Monday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the administration has “made meaningful, measurable progress in improving the way our Department – and its partners and counterparts – respond to disclosure requests.”

At the Justice Department alone, officials released records requested through Freedom of Information Act requests either in full or in part 94.5 percent of the time, according to department figures. DOJ also reduced the backlog of pending FOIA requests by 26 percent in the past three years and pending administrative appeals by 41 percent. It also has launched FOIA.gov, meant to serve as a clearinghouse to track requests.

But governmentwide, the data are troubling, according to outside observers.

Three years after President Obama ordered agencies on his first day in office to err on the side of openness when granting FOIA requests, and three years after Holder established tighter standards for fighting FOIA requests, there is “little evidence that these new standards are actually being followed,” according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research group at Syracuse University and authors of The FOIA Project, a Web site tracking such requests.

Justice Department lawyers “have become even more aggressive in defending anything that federal agencies choose to withhold,” TRAC said this month.

Indeed, DOJ last month earned the seventh annual Rosemary Award, named for President Richard M. Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods, who erased 18 1/ 2 minutes of a crucial Watergate tape. The award, presented by the George Washington University-based National Security Archive, honors federal agencies that have done the most to enhance government secrecy and keep the public in the dark.

In bestowing DOJ with the honor last month, the Archive said DOJ has engaged in “selective and abusive prosecutions of espionage laws against whistleblowers as ostensible ‘leakers’ of classified information” and conducted “more ‘leaks’ prosecutions in the last three years than in all previous years combined.”

Notably, Holder made no mention of the award — or the more aggressive prosecution of leakers — in his comments Monday on Sunshine Week.

So, three years after Obama first ordered agencies to more aggressively grant FOIA requests — and amid increased prosecution of leakers — how well do you think the administration is performing on the issue of government openness? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Further reading:

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Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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