In America, one of the fundamental principles of our democracy is that our government works for us. We are supposed to have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as President Abraham Lincoln famously said. To help ensure that principle is upheld we recognize that public access to information about government actions is critical to sustaining individual and collective freedoms.
But this year, as we notch the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), mounting evidence shows that many of our federal agencies are actually working to stifle that freedom by wrongfully withholding information from the public. In June, President Obama signed a bill presumably aimed at strengthening FOIA. But while the law offers a range of new procedural improvements, the provisions do little to actually prevent the continuation of common abuses and excuses we see from agencies reluctant to turn over information about their activities.
Attempts to evade the FOIA law have become so routine that the U.S. Government Accountability Office is convening a team now to begin a broad audit of FOIA compliance at federal agencies. The GAO review will get underway this month, according to the GAO.
The investigation comes in response to a directive issued by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, congressional bodies that have oversight of FOIA operations. And it comes after a damning report from the House committee that found the culture of the executive branch of the federal government "encourages an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy when responding to Freedom of Information Act requests.”
Agencies are supposed to act upon and respond to FOIA requesters within 20 working days, but anyone who regularly makes FOIA requests knows that it will likely be months, if not years, before any records are produced. If and when records are turned over, they often are heavily redacted, making them essentially useless. The House committee on oversight also found that political pressures often are at play, with documents deemed problematic or embarrassing withheld from release.
“Secrecy fosters distrust,” the committee report noted.
In their letter to the GAO, congressional committee leaders cited an Associated Press analysis that found people who asked for records received censored files or none at all in a record 77 percent of requests last year. Overall, the Obama administration censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them in a record 596,095 cases.
Filing a FOIA these days is a little like stepping through the looking glass into an alternative reality where order and logic are elusive. Pro Publica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, recently offered a litany of examples of governmental side-stepping of the law.
And I remain mired in my own frustrating FOIA odyssey. In January, I requested certain records from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding a food safety testing program the agency conducts to measure pesticide residues in food. When I inquired about the status of my request, after the requisite 20 working days had passed, the agency told me it was waiting for its drug evaluation unit and its center for veterinary medicine to search for records.