Obama Signs FOIA Bill; Defends Transparency Record

1 July 2016

President Barrack Obama on June 30 signed into law a package of Freedom of Information Act reforms, using the occasion to release a detailed defense of his FOI record.

The amendments (S. 337committee report) write into law a specific presumption of openness, strengthen the FOIA ombudsman, put a time limit on the use of the deliberative process exemption and mandates more proactive openness, among other things. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

The Justice Department simultaneously issued a rather inclusive report on a pilot project testing the concept of releasing publically all documents disclosed as a result of FOIA requests. The report cites no serious impediments to “release for one – release for all,” though it notes opposition from some journalists. The president said the topic will be the first item on the agenda of a new council of FOIA officers being created by the amendments.

Nate Jones of the National Security Archive, the publisher of FreedomInfo.org, commented that if some agencies can employ automatic posting technologies others should be able to, too. NSA’s Lauren Harper regretted that the report did not dispel the “red herring,” wrote Section 508, which requires agencies to ensure access for persons with disabilities, is burdensome, even though many agencies routinely comply.

 

 

The White House statement also was notably complimentary to an existing FOIA portal, FOIAonline, used by 12 agencies, but previously bypassed a model for a consolidated FOIA request portal. Creation of such a portal is called for in the FOIA amendments and has been an unrealized administration pledge in two successive action plans in connection with the US membership in the Open Government Partnership. “The Administration will announce further details about the functionality of the portal and the timeline for launching its initial phases in the coming months,” according to the statement.

Obama’s expected approval of the bill, done without the signing ceremony that accompanies some bill signings, came days before the 50th anniversary of the FOIA, signed into law on July 4, 1966.

The administration also announced new members for the FOIA Advisory Committee’s 2016-2018 term.

Obama’s statement said: “And I am very proud of all the work we’ve done to try to make government more open and responsive, but I know that people haven’t always been satisfied with the speed with which they’re getting responses and requests. Hopefully this is going to help and be an important initiative for us to continue on the reform path.”

Varied Reactions

“This bill marks an important milestone; it significantly advances the public’s right to know, and includes provisions that the government openness and accountability community has been promoting for the last decade,” according to Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment.org.

News reports on Obama’s signing of the bipartisan bill, done without a ceremony, action were tinged with skepticism.

Neil Munro from the conservative Breitbart wrote, “President Barack Obama is praising his administration as a champion of government transparency — even as his deputies continue their unprecedented, record-breaking obstructionism of the nation’s government transparency laws.”

A journalist who make many FOIA requests, Jason Leopold of Vice, wrote, “And by signing the FOIA reform bill into law, Obama can continue to boast that he had the most transparent administration in history even though his administration’s record on openness over the past seven years has been horrendous.”

For overview of Obama’s record see article by Alexis Simendinger in RealClearPolitics.

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