The Obama administration has long called itself the most transparent administration in history. But newly released Department of Justice (DOJ) documents show that the White House has actually worked aggressively behind the scenes to scuttle congressional reforms designed to give the public better access to information possessed by the federal government.
The documents were obtained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism in the public interest, which in turn shared them exclusively with VICE News. They were obtained using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — the same law Congress was attempting to reform. The group sued the DOJ last December after its FOIA requests went unanswered for more than a year.
The documents confirm longstanding suspicions about the administration’s meddling, and lay bare for the first time how it worked to undermine FOIA reform bills that received overwhelming bipartisan support and were unanimously passed by both the House and Senate in 2014 — yet were never put up for a final vote.
Moreover, a separate set of documents obtained by VICE News in response to a nearly two-year-old FOIA request provides new insight into how the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also tried to disrupt Congress’s FOIA reform efforts, which would have required those agencies to be far more transparent when responding to records requests.
The disclosures surface days before Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open government, and a renewed effort by the House and Senate to improve the FOIA by enacting the very same reforms contained in the earlier House and Senate bills — the seventh attempt in at least 10 years by lawmakers to amend the transparency law. But the administration is again working to derail the legislation, according to congressional staffers.
The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014, co-sponsored by then–House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings, would have codified into law Obama’s presidential memorandum, signed on his first day in office in 2009, that instructed all government agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.” (Attorney General Eric Holder issued a set of guidelines to federal agencies a couple of months later that explained how the presumption of disclosure should be implemented.)
Additionally, the legislation called for the implementation of a centralized online portal, overseen by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to handle all FOIA requests and required government agencies to update their FOIA regulations. The bill unanimously passed by a vote of 410-0, one of the few pieces of legislation during President Barack Obama’s tenure to receive bipartisan support.
But the administration “strongly opposed passage” of the House bill and opposed nearly every provision that would have made it easier for journalists, historians, and the public to access government records. The White House claimed it would increase the FOIA backlog, result in astronomical costs, and cause unforeseen problems with processing requests, according to a secret six-page DOJ set of talking points turned over to the Freedom of the Press Foundation along with 100 pages of internal DOJ emails about the FOIA bill.
“The Administration views [the House bill] as an attempt to impose on the Executive Branch multiple administrative requirements concerning its internal management of FOIA administration, which are not appropriate for legislative intervention and would substantially increase costs and cause delays in FOIA processing,” the talking points say. “The Administration believes that the changes… are not necessary and, in many respects, will undermine the successes achieved to date by diverting scarce processing resources.”
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We continue to naively expect politicians to do what they say they’re going to do. This naivety reflects our lack of understanding of their role in the world, which is to be public puppets, provide public theatre whilst the real control goes on behind the scenes, not necessarily directly in their awareness.