It’s never certain whether political leaders mean it when they pledge allegiance to open government, so it is wise to wait before drawing conclusions. Nonetheless, President Barack Obama’s recent executive order reversing the Bush administration’s policy on Freedom of Information Act requests is noteworthy.
Under the previous two presidents, the attorney general’s office laid out the policy. Obama has made the issue his own by issuing an executive order, which is more difficult for government agencies to ignore and for subsequent presidents to reverse.
In explaining the order, Obama wrote: “All agencies should 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. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”
That’s poetry to any seeker of public information.
Eight years ago, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said this to government agencies: “Any discretionary decision by your agency to disclose information protected under the FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests that could be implicated by disclosure of the information. … When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part, you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions.”
Sure enough, FOIA requests were increasingly turned down, according to McClatchy legal affairs reporter Michael Doyle. To be fair, the 9/11 attacks help explain some of the increased secrecy by the Defense Department and related agencies. But, as Doyle notes, the resistance spread to other agencies, such as the Interior Department, where 47 percent of FOIA requests were fully granted in 2007, down from 64 percent in 1998. Plus, the administration’s FOIA staffing and budget were slashed significantly, which means requests took longer to fill.
Obama’s order rightly places the public’s right to know above embarrassment, cost or inconvenience. In addition, he is urging agencies to actively release information without waiting for requests. His actions demonstrate an appreciation for the free flow of information.
Again, the jury is out on whether the administration will invoke technicalities to undermine open government, but the news so far is encouraging.