Barack Obama, before and after becoming president, pledged to produce the “most transparent” administration in U.S. history. But the backlog of unfulfilled requests for federal documents under Freedom of Information Act regulations has doubled since he entered the White House in 2009.
That’s not according to some Republican congressional committee.
That’s according to President Obama’s Justice Department.
Administration officials blame the extended delays on a rise in the number of FOIA requests and staffing cuts.
However, if transparency were really the high priority the president vowed that it would be in his administration, necessary adjustments would have been made to handle the extra load. Instead, FOIA requests continue to languish long beyond the prescribed deadlines for answers.
The House Oversight and Government Reforms Committee, seeking answers to the breakdown in FOIA request processing, endured a wide range of buck passing from White House, State and Justice Department officials this week.
As the Huffington Post reported: “Frustration with the administration crossed party lines on Wednesday as Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said the testimony heard by the committee during the two-day hearing series vastly contradicted each other. During testimonies from the American Civil Liberties Union, The New York Times, Vice News and other groups on Tuesday, lawmakers said everyone shared stories of FOIA requests going unanswered well past the 20-day window the law permits, including a number of requests that stretched on for years.”
Exasperation over the administration’s FOIA failure also stretches way back. In 2012, longtime FOIA specialist Katherine Meyer, a Washington lawyer who had high hopes for the Obama administration, told Politico:
“Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. ... It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. This administration is raising one barrier after another. It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned — I’m really stunned.”
So criticism of the Obama team’s abysmal FOIA record isn’t part of a vast right-wing conspiracy. And timely access to pertinent government documents is not a partisan issue.
This excerpt from an official memorandum still posted on the White House website, from President Obama to the heads of federal agencies, puts it well:
“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.”
With little more than 18 months left in to President Obama’s second term, that “transparency” remains sadly lacking.
This much, though, is clear: President Obama has fallen far short of keeping his “most open and transparent administration” promise.