Transparency Groups Seek White House Position on FOIA Reforms

Fifty organizations ask administration to live up to its own rhetoric

October 27, 2014

Fifty transparency organizations and watchdog groups are pressing the White House to state its position on a number of core reforms they say are needed to fix the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In a letter released last week, the 50 groups requested the White House’s opinion on legislative efforts included in the FOIA Improvements Act of 2014, which is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Each of these provisions is critical to achieving your stated goal of a more open and accountable government and would strengthen your legacy," the letter states. "We believe, working together, we can breathe new life into your commitments. But we need this legislative component to move forward. Accordingly, we respectfully seek your position on the codification of each of these specific provisions through legislative means."

On his first day in office, President Obama issued a memorandum instructing federal agencies that the FOIA "should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

However, transparency groups and media organizations have been largely disappointed by the self-proclaimed "most transparent administration in history." Federal agencies largely ignored the memorandum, and the Justice Department has been less than aggressive in enforcing the memorandum.

"Today, more than five years later, we face many challenges in fulfilling your day-one commitment," the transparency groups wrote to the White House. "The FOIA remains one of the most effective tools for the public to know what its government is up to, but changing agency practices under that statute to meet your transparency goals has been especially challenging."

The groups support codifying President Obama’s memorandum in law, as well as five other measures that would stiffen requirements for when agencies could withhold intra-agency communications or documents older than 25 years.

"Without this legislative mandate, the FOIA will continue to be subject to the political whims of whoever occupies the White House," the letter states.

The White House has so far not responded to the letter. It did not return a request for comment for this article.

Among the 50 organizations that signed the letter are the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Library Association.