The Obama administration quietly launched the Open Government initiative last week by requiring seven agencies to publish documents they furnish via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) online. By publishing this information, the public will be able to view the same documents that have been requested via the FOIA online form or through the mail by journalists, individuals, and corporations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation will be the three main agencies involved in the six-month pilot program. Some departments in Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Justice Department, and the National Archives and Records Administration will also be releasing some FOIA documents as well. The EPA has already been releasing its requested documents online since 2013.
The announcement came just days after the 49th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s July 4th signing of the Freedom of Information Act in 1966. Despite the new policy and its slogan of “release to one is release to all,” many muckrakers will be disappointed to learn that the White House is not changing the government’s policy on redaction. The government reserves the right to redact any information that it deems sensitive to its interests. This has often led to unintelligible documents being released that offer little or no insight into the matter under investigation. The decision to publish the requests online comes amid years of pressure from both interest groups and from within Congress to open up records of policies and decisions. The number of FOIA requests has increased dramatically over the past five years, 714,231 in 2014 compared to 514,541 in 2009, with some 80,000 requests continuously remaining in a backlog.
The policy change has brought a world of ire from journalists who fear being scooped due to the new policy. They claim that publishing the information will actually lead to a chilling effect on FOIA requests, with editors moving away from in-depth investigative reporting. Washington Post criminal justice and civil liberties journalist, Radley Balko tweeted, “Evil genius. The federal government has figured out a way to undermine transparency by being more transparent.” Some like New York Times’ Charlie Savage are taking a middle-ground perspective. Savage tweeted, “Release to all but give the requester a head start. A week would be nice.” Savage followed up by writing, “A modest delay gives requester and plaintiff time to read documents and write an exclusive article about them, preserving the incentive to go to time and effort.” Although Vice News reporter Jason Leopold, who has broken several major stories based on FOIA requests, agrees that the information should be made public, he believes that some kind of head-start period should be granted to the filer.
Other journalists and government officials dismiss the complaints as journalists putting their own interests ahead of the public good. Former journalist and open-government activist, Lisette Garcia told the Huffington Post, “Any media outlet seeking delays to protect scoops shows it cares more about profits than about the communities they purport to inform.” Nate Jones, who heads the Freedom of Information Act project at the National Security Archive, agrees, saying “It’s the Freedom of Information Act, not the Get a Good Scoop Act.” Despite his criticisms, Jones agrees that journalists should get some kind of lead time, telling Fedscoop in an interview, he wished that the announcement “would have explicitly stated lead time would be built in.” The Sunlight Foundation expressed their optimism of the change, writing on its website Monday that the announcement signals that President Obama “is still serious about improving public access to government information.” The president had previously vowed to run the most transparent administration in history, although rampant bipartisan criticism persists regarding the president’s level of secrecy in many avenues, most notably regarding international trade agreements.
Digital Journal – Caroline Leopold
Huffington Post – Alexander Howard
Washington Post – Lisa Rein