Government watchdog groups and transparency advocates are asking the Obama administration to review its policy of having the White House sign off on an expanded number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests—a procedure they say causes significant delays.
In a letter to the White House released Monday, 25 transparency organizations said the Obama administration’s policy of reviewing FOIA requests that contain so-called "White House equities" has "caused significant confusion and delay among agencies in their compliance with the Freedom of Information Act."
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According to a 2009 memo from the White House Counsel to all agency heads and general counsels, the White House reminded all agencies to send FOIA requests containing White House "equities" to it for review.
The equities mandate "applies to all documents and records, whether in oral, paper, or electronic form, that relate to communications to and from the White House, including preparations for such communications."
Transparency groups say the review process has significantly delayed some requests and that agencies do not have proper guidance on what counts as a "White House equity."
Government watchdog group Cause of Action, one of the signers of the letter, first obtained the formerly secret 2009 memo. The group sued a dozen government agencies in August for more information on their White House equities policy.
"Public promises of transparency are no excuse for secret memos that prevent it. Americans deserve a government that is fair and open and delaying the release of documents prevents the ability of a free press to educate the public," Cause of Action executive director Dan Epstein said in a statement Monday. "Our hope is that President Obama honors the laws in place designed to provide transparency, such as the Freedom of Information Act, and withdraws this 2009 memo."
Other signatories include the Society of Professional Journalists, the Sunlight Foundation, the American Library Association, the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight, and OpenTheGovernment.org.
"To put it simply, ‘White House equities’ is not a well-defined term. Not surprisingly, a policy based around protecting an ill-defined term can sow confusion among agency officials and the public, and make it very hard to know exactly the effect of the policy," Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said in a statement. "In the interest of the unprecedented levels of openness in government committed to by the president, the White House needs to review this policy, and send agencies any additional guidance if needed."
As previously reported by the Washington Free Beacon, the executive branch has asserted its privilege to review White House documents and communications produced through FOIA requests since at least the Reagan administration. However, transparency advocates say that under the Obama administration such review has expanded beyond its original intended scope to include documents that do not originate from the White House at all.
The Treasury Inspector General wrote in a 2013 report on White House’s policy on reviewing documents subject to FOIA requests that "none of the document sets we reviewed appeared to originate with the White House."
The Treasury Inspector General also said White House involvement was minimal and found no evidence of bad-faith practices. However, it did note that White House review "was responsible in several cases for adding a significant processing delay."
An anonymous FOIA officer at a federal agency made similar claims in an interview with the Washington Times earlier this year.
"Under the Obama administration, I am personally aware of multiple cases [including those in litigation] in which records were sent to the White House because they dealt with a politically hot topic," the official told the Washington Times. "The records did not originate from or even mention the White House."
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.