Federal agencies continue to stiff-arm FOIA requests
On his first day in office in 2009, President Barack Obama promised that transparency would be one of the "touchstones of this presidency."
Advocates for open government were ecstatic at the promise of less secrecy and the president's directive to all government agencies that "in the face of doubt, openness prevails."
Too bad the message got lost in the mail. Or the email. Even six years later, many federal agencies haven't gotten it.
They slow-walk requests under the Freedom of Information Act, which was passed a half-century ago to ensure public access to government business — which, in fact, is the people's business.
Delays can last for years. Long before news broke this month that Hillary Clinton used private email for government business while she was secretary of state, the Associated Press had sought records from Clinton's tenure. The AP made its first request five years ago. Last week, tired of waiting, it filed suit to force release.
How tenaciously does government guard its secrets? One group has been battling the State Department for more than 13 years for details of phone conversations of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the 1970s.
This arrogant attitude — that government information doesn't belong to the people — extends even to issues of public safety.
Last year, after reports that 19 veterans died and dozens were injured by delays in medical screenings at VA hospitals, the Department of Veterans Affairs refused to release the names of the hospitals. The VA denied FOIA requests from a reporter. After a battle and pressure from Congress, the VA finally relented.
In general, agencies don't relent. They deny all or key parts of requests, often by stretching the meaning of the law.
The government can, for instance, withhold information that reveals how policy decisions were reached — an exemption so subjective it can be stretched to cover just about anything. The Obama administration reduced use of such denials during its first two years. But in 2013, it used the exemption more than 81,000 times — an increase of 50 percent over George W. Bush's last year in office.
When government opens public records, the benefits can be enormous. The administration, to its credit, has decided to release data annually on what Medicare pays doctors — data that can reveal patterns of fraud and waste.
And while many agencies lag, 40 percent now have digital reading rooms with easy access to certain electronic records.
So how can more public records be made truly public?
For starters, Congress should pass a pending measure to establish a legal "presumption of openness" and place a time limit on government's ability to withhold data under the much-abused decision-making exemption.
The rest will take strong leadership. Last week, during the flap over Clinton's private email account, Obama repeated that his administration's policy "is to encourage transparency."
Obama is the boss of the bureaucracy. If he wants that message to get through to the entire government, he needs to do more than encourage. He needs to make it a priority.