Despite Obama’s Sunlight Order, Federal Information Often Obscured by Shadow

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For those of us in the press who spend a good chunk of our time trying to pry information out of the federal government’s reflexively self-protective bureaucracy, Jan. 21, 2009 brought good news. On his first full day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum encouraging more accessibility to government information. The memo began with, “A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.”

The prosaic substance of the memo, the Freedom of Information Act, couldn’t have been more exciting for reporter geeks like me. The 1966 law is one of the most important tools we use to force information out of the government. FOIA requires the government to produce information when requested in writing, subject to a series of exceptions.

Obama’s memorandum seemed important because FOIA can be so frustrating. Federal agencies sometimes ignore requests entirely as if they never got them at all, drag their heels for weeks, month or even years, and sometimes claim exceptions like the protection of privacy in cases where those exemptions clearly do not apply. The government’s message in those cases is basically, “If you don’t like it, sue us.” That’s an expensive, time-consuming proposition.

The memo suggested that would all change under Obama. “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” Obama wrote. Within weeks Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidelines reversing more secretive FOIA rules issued by George W. Bush ‘s administration and encouraged departments to release information in all cases except except where exemptions clearly apply. It would all be sunshine and light.

A new study of Obama’s initiative by the George Washington University’s National Security Archive, called “Sunshine and Shadows,” shows that despite Obama’s call for more light, considerable shadows remain.

The review of the 28 government agencies that handle most FOIA requests showed only 4 releasing more information, 5 are withholding even more data, and another 18 have showed “mixed” results. Only 13 of 90 agencies across the government produced documentation proving changes to FOIA practices since Obama signed his order in 2009. (The Obama administration counts 93 total agencies and points to the fact that the overall backlog of FOIA requests has shrunk.) The National Security Archive says the study shows the “need for more pressure and leadership” to make FOIA work the way Obama seems to have envisioned.

It may be unrealistic to expect the entire federal government to pivot on a dime and in just two years open its files to the press through FOIA. But the new report comes amid other indicators that suggest the Obama administration may harbor a penchant for secrecy. Among other things, the Obama administration is the most aggressive prosecutor of suspected government leakers in U.S. history.

Personally, I have not noticed any significant change with FOIA since Obama took office. (In frustration I have, on occasion, emailed Obama’s memorandum to recalcitrant government bureaucrats.) It still feels like pulling teeth, and this study suggests it’s not getting much easier for those of us who live by the old saying that news is “what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”