FOIA follies: Journalists say gov’t keeps them in the dark

U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) (Reuters / Jose Luis Magana)
Reporters and government watchdogs testified before a House oversight committee that the Obama administration has a terrible transparency record, either refusing to release public documents or redacting them to the point of being useless.

Sharyl Attkisson, award-winning investigative reporter and former CBS journalist, told the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was a “largely pointless, useless shadow of its intended self.

FOIA law was intended to facilitate the timely release of public information. Instead, federal officials have perverted it and use it to obfuscate, obstruct and delay,” Attkisson said. “The broken system is not by accident, it’s by design.”

Vice News reporter Jason Leopold argued that government officials routinely violated FOIA law with impunity, most often by delaying release.

Often, information delayed is information denied,” Leopold testified. “I have submitted thousands of FOIA requests to dozens of different agencies, and in my experience, fewer than one percent of my requests have been decided within the timeframe required by FOIA.

One time, Leopold testified, a government agency sent him 150 completely redacted pages. He was looking to make it into an art display, he said. Another time, a Pentagon think-tank promised him records he requested “as long as you never file another FOIA again.”

Newsweek finance editor Leah Goodman testified about numerous instances of government officials feeding reporters quotes while demanding they not be identified or even credited, “and we the journalists, are expected to be enablers and stewards of this process, a process I find to be the opposite of what journalism is for.

In the past year alone, I have worked with around two dozen government agencies that have wanted to dictate to me how to write my stories, what I can say and cannot say and seem to think that this is entirely reasonable,” Goodman testified.

Terry Anderson, a former AP reporter who was held captive in Lebanon by Hezbollah between 1985 and 1991, testified about his inability to obtain government records of his own press clippings afterwards.

Half of the Bill of Rights is now regularly ignored,” Anderson said. “Our own government agencies violate the Constitution at will and with impunity. Our senior intelligence officials blithely lie to you and to the American people. And we can do nothing, because we know nothing.”

Because of the revelations by persecuted whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning, “we are now having a public debate over serious issues we would not otherwise even know about,” Anderson said.

Committee chairman, Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz blamed the lack of transparency on the Obama administration, citing an April 2009 memo instructing federal agencies to have the White House review all FOIA requests to protect “White House equities.”

If you’ve got the yahoos at the White House having to review every document that falls under FOIA,” Chaffetz argued, “this is the heart of the backlog.”

When Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly pointed out that Ronald Reagan’s White House issued a similar instruction in 1988, Chaffetz would not budge.

I don’t care who’s in the White House, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It has a chilling effect, it slows people down. It sends a signal to those who are on the front lines… ‘Don’t you give that that to The New York Times',” he argued.

Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, the ranking minority member on the Committee, criticized the hearing as partisan, arguing that while FOIA requests have skyrocketed, agency budgets have been cut by “draconian” sequestration budget cuts, leaving fewer staff to handle “impossible workloads.”

Michigan Democrat Brenda Lawrence also cited budget and staff problems in complying with FOIA requests, prompting Leopold to say he had “never, ever received a response” citing that as an issue.

READ MORE: White House exempts itself from FOIA requests

Reacting to the hearing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the Obama administration was committed to transparency, noting that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) did not apply to Congress.

Those who are interested in advocating for transparency in government should advocate for Congress being subject to those kinds of transparency measures,” Earnest said.

Enacted in 1966, FOIA was designed to release government information to the public to ensure accountability. A federal agency that receives a FOIA request has 20 business days to respond to a request (and an additional ten days for unusual circumstances) and must release non-exempt records to the requester.

According to information released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in Fiscal Year 2014 the federal government received 714,231 FOIA requests, while the backlog of FOIA cases that have not been processed within the statutory time limits rose by 67 percent, to 159,741.