A FOIA Fiesta

DOJ to celebrate transparency fail during national ‘Sunshine Week’


The Justice Department plans to celebrate the government’s “significant improvements” in administering the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) even though a majority of federal agencies, including the Justice Department itself, have ignored the Obama administration’s transparency guidelines.

The Justice Department will mark the fourth anniversary of Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2009 memorandum to federal agencies instructing them to revise their FOIA regulations and adopt a presumption in favor of openness, according to a press release.

The event “will celebrate the significant improvements in FOIA administration that these guidelines have generated across the government” on the first day of “Sunshine Week 2013,” according to the release.

However, 62 out of 99 federal agencies, including the Justice Department, have not updated their FOIA regulations since Holder’s 2009 memo, according to a December audit by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Holder has done little to implement his guidelines and his Justice Department has defended all agencies that chose to withhold information from the public, a report on FOIAproject.org found.

“Last year the Department of Justice received the Rosemary Award by worst open government performance by a federal agency, and there has been little to celebrate since,” said Nate Jones, the FOIA coordinator for the National Security Archive. “In 2012, the Department of Justice was too busy defending bad FOIA decisions in court and spent too little time ensuring that FOIA shops government wide lived up to the FOIA principles articulated by President [Barack] Obama and Attorney General Holder at the beginning of Obama’s first term in office.”

The Rosemary Award—named after Nixon secretary Rose Mary Woods, who “accidentally” erased sections of the Watergate tapes—honors the federal agency that has done the most in the previous year to strengthen government secrecy.

The National Security Archive said the Justice Department engaged in “selective and abusive prosecutions of espionage laws against whistleblowers as ostensible ‘leakers’ of classified information” and conducted “more ‘leaks’ prosecutions in the last three years than in all previous years combined.”

As reported by the Free Beacon, President Obama’s repeated insistence that he is running “the most transparent administration in history” is divorced from fact.

Earlier this month, 50 journalism and government watchdog organizations, including the National Press Club and OpenTheGovernment.org, signed a letter pressing the president to fulfill his FOIA promises.

“We’ve been strongly urging the president to recommit to making FOIA a priority, because it’s certainly a hallmark of a functioning government,” said Amy Bennett, the assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org. “We just haven’t seen the real world improvement that we hoped these statements from President Obama and Attorney General Holder would usher in.”

The Justice Department attempted to overhaul its FOIA regulations in 2011 but watchdog groups and several members of Congress lambasted the new rules for increasing secrecy rather than improving transparency.

One of the proposed rules would have allowed federal agencies to deny the existence of records when applying an exclusion, even if the records did exist.

The ACLU, along with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and OpenTheGovernment.org, said in a public comment that the moves “dramatically undermine government integrity by allowing a law designed to provide public access to government information to be twisted to permit federal law enforcement agencies to actively lie to the American people.”

The Justice Department withdrew the proposed change and has not updated its FOIA regulations since 2003.

The Justice Department’s proposals served as “the prime example of what we don’t want to see,” Bennett said.

Sunshine Week “is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” according to its website. The American Society of News Editors launched the initiative in March 2005.

The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.

CJ Ciaramella   Email CJ | Full Bio | RSS
CJ Ciaramella is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, he was a reporter for the Daily Caller. He was also a Collegiate Network year-long fellow at the San Diego Union-Tribune and has written articles for the Weekly Standard and Oregon Quarterly. Ciaramella attended the University of Oregon, where he edited the award-winning student magazine, the Oregon Commentator. He lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @cjciaramella. His email address is ciaramella@freebeacon.com.

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