On President Barack Obama’s first full day in office, he ordered government agencies to administer the Freedom of Information Act “with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
But that’s not what happened.
Rejections, delays, inaction, requests for high fees are what people got instead when they requested public records from the federal government.
The level of cooperation on FOIA requests varies widely from request to request or agency to agency.
Journalists who cover the White House — and it’s not just liberal or conservative journalists — say this is the most secretive administration they can remember.
It’s at least encouraging, then, that last week the House of Representatives unanimously passed HR 1211, the FOIA Reform Act. If it becomes law and is carried out, it would be the first meaningful reforms to the federal FOIA in seven years.
Many things in the legislation hold promise. It would create an online portal, making it easier to track requests. More things should be automatically disclosed by the government. It codifies the “presumption of openness” concept. It may also make it easier to track how well government agencies are complying with the law.
That’s all encouraging. Journalists pay close attention to this issue. But it’s not just about journalists. The public has a right to know what its government is doing. Government shouldn’t be able to conceal information because it might be embarrassing, because mistakes might be revealed or because of indefinite fears.
Let’s hope this time when it is said that openness prevails, openness prevails.