One of the better ideas of modern government in America was the creation in 1966, and amendment in 1974, of the Freedom of Information Act.
The concept behind it dates right back to the Founding– people in a democracy must know what their government is doing in their names. Such an informed citizenry (in Jefferson’s words) is essential to our system of government. How else can we know how to vote, what to support, what to oppose?
Freedom of Information Act
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) began with the general premise that except for some obvious categories (serious national security things, personal information and the like) the default position should be that everything the government has should be otherwise available to the public. The ideals behind FOIA were so grand that there wasn’t even a request form created. Citizens would (pre-Internet) simply write a letter to a designated FOIA office at say, the Department of State, saying what records they sought and the federal agency would send those records out to them. The official deadline for response was 30 days. If the records broadly served the public interest there wasn’t even a fee. Otherwise, the only cost was to be for copying.
FOIA in 2014
The FOIA system today works very differently. Agencies are generally loath to release anything, and so create roadblocks to legitimate FOIA requests. Some still require original signatures and won’t accept requests online. Others demand hyper-detailed information on the request, such as the precise dates and titles of documents whose dates and titles may be classified and thus unavailable– Catch 22. Most agencies regard the deadline for a response simply as the time period to send out a “request received” note. Many employ very, very few staff to process requests, leading to near-endless delays. The CIA won’t directly release electronic versions of documents; if a digital format is requested, the CIA prints out the original, then scans it into a PDF, significantly raising the costs to the requester while delaying delivery. Even when a request is fulfilled, “free” copying is often denied, and reproduction costs exaggerated, further hurdles to be overcome.
My own FOIA requests ahead of a possible lawsuit to my then-employer, the Department of State, were routinely returned for “more identifying information” and ultimately were assigned a “fulfillment date” of several years into the future, precluding their use in any legal setting.
John Young, who runs the web site Cryptome and who is a steadfast FOIA requester, stated “Stonewalling, delay, brush-off, lying are normal. It is a delusion for ordinary requestors and a bitch of a challenge for professionals. Churning has become a way of life for FOIA, costly as hell for little results. In short, it is a confidence game.”
Individual states have started to follow the federal government’s example. The Michigan Department of Education said the least expensive employee able to fulfill a specific Freedom of Information Act request has a total compensation of $116,917 a year. In 2009, the Michigan State Police said in a FOIA response to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that materials related to the spending of Homeland Security grants would cost $6.8 million to fulfill.
What is the State Department Hiding?
Chief among federal agencies which do not fulfill their legal duties under FOIA is the U.S. Department of State. Of the top fifteen agencies in terms of FOIA requests received (representing over 90 percent of all FOIA requests,) new research shows that State ranks dead last, with a score of 37. Homeland Security bests State with a 51. The Department of Justice beats State with an 81.
One FOIA case in particular reveals the depth to which the State Department seeks to withhold information from the public.
In 2012, a Gawker editor filed a FOIA request with the State Department, asking specifically for all the emails between Hillary Clinton confidant/spokesperson Philippe Reines and reporters from 34 media outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. Agencies are required to maintain copies of official communication by the FOIA– a “system of records.” Not having such as system in place is a violation of federal law. Emails are clearly included in what must by law be archived.
Nearly a year after filing his FOIA request, the Gawker editor finally recieved a response from the State Department. “After a thorough search,” the State Department wrote, “no records responsive to your request were located.” The letter did not explain why the Department could not locate emails between reporters and someone whose job it was to correspond with reporters. Gawker is appealing the action by State.
Despite State’s inability to locate a single email between Hillary spokesperson Philippe Reines (he is working on Clinton’s “transition staff” at present and is expected to play a major role in her administration) and any reporter, we found one, on the internet. The email exchange is with now-deceased reporter Michael Hastings, concerning Benghazi. Reines concludes the email chain by telling Hastings “And by good day, I mean F*ck Off.”
But All is Not Lost?
There is good news. Everyone’s favorite part of the State Department, Diplomatic Security (“Stop Calling Us the Stasi, We’re Not that Organized”) is hiring. Specifically, just this week they listed an opening for a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act Division Chief responsible for planning, managing, directing and supervising the staff, oversees the development of the Bureau’s policies, and develops the Division’s plans and strategies.
And righteous bucks. Depending on your civil service grade, this job starts at more than $100,000 and zooms up.
Most Transparent Administration in History
Obama’s early pledge to oversee the most transparent administration in history is by now a punch line in every pundit’s act. But let’s put some numbers to the joke.
In the past year, the government cited national security as a reason to withhold information sought under FOIA 8,496 times, a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason only 3,658 times. Even the Agriculture Department cited national security six times, followed by the Environmental Protection Agency doing it twice and even once by the National Park Service. Five years after Obama directed agencies to less frequently invoke a “deliberative process” exception to withhold materials describing decision-making behind the scenes, the government did it anyway, a record 81,752 times.
Government is not made up of dynamic, freethinkers. Most folks inside the federal government are, or become, a little less bold, a little more gun shy, a lot more concerned about what they say and the consequences of what they do. They are not folks who by and large like to stick their necks out. So a clear pattern of a government essentially refusing to follow the FOIA law isn’t happenstance.
It’s policy now in Post-Constitutional America.