A New Era of Openness, But Not Responsiveness

President Obama, as you might have heard, didn’t wait long to begin – however tentatively – the much-promised, much hoped-for rollbacks of the Bush administration’s secrecy and (lack of) “openness” policies. It’s one very small step in the right direction, and while it looks good on paper, I’m going to remain cautiously pessimistic about just how much meaningful change and reform the President’s policies are going to produce.

Don’t get me wrong, I laud any gestures towards greater openness and government transparency, however symbolic they may be. I just don’t think that any directive from the Oval Office, by itself, is going to change the many, fundamental problems with FOIA processing that now exist throughout the federal government. Yes, overclassification is a problem – a huge problem. So is the capricious and arbitrary way in which denials have been and undoubtedly will continue to be made. If the President is really serious about promoting transparency and openness, he should, in my opinion, take steps – real, meaningful, concrete steps – to improve the often glacial pace of FOIA processing government-wide. The law says you’re entitled, at least in theory, to a response in twenty working days. In practice…

According to my records, last year I filed thirty-nine FOIA requests with various federal agencies (as well as a handful of local, open-government requests, and a couple of requests to the British government under their FOI laws). The Department of Homeland Security, weirdly enough, was the only agency I dealt with who managed to consistently respond within twenty working days. The FBI managed to produce “no records” responses in a consistently short timespan, but seem unable to produce even a single sheet of releasable paper in less than three months, and their usual response time is much longer (I’ve got outstanding requests with them going back to June). The Navy is even slower – one component has taken eleven months (and counting) to produce around two-dozen pages of unclassified material, and as far as I can tell just “gave up” last year on even pretending to process another of my requests, after over a year had passed. And let’s not even talk about the Army, the Defense Intelligence Agency, or NGA, all of whom can – and do – take, literally, years to even begin processing requests.

Changing, however slightly, the standards used to review and release records under the FOIA looks good on paper, and is a step in the right direction – but if agencies continue to be allowed to drag their feet on processing requests, any promises of reform, openness, or transparency are just so much meaningless lip-service.

Published in: General | on January 22nd, 2009| Comments Off on A New Era of Openness, But Not Responsiveness

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