The White House Just Officially Exempted Itself from Freedom of Information Requests

When U.S. President Barack Obama was elected to his first term back in 2008, he promised the American people that his administration would be the most transparent administration ever.

Since then, the Obama administration’s track record on transparency has been questionable, to say the least.

“Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. … It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it,”

Katherine Meyer — a Washington-based lawyer who’s been handling FOIA cases since 1978 — told Politico back in 2012.

Then came the announcement on Monday (3/16) that the White House would be deleting a federal regulation that subjects its Office of Administration to the Freedom of Information Act (the FOIA is a law that gives citizens the right to access information from the federal government).

U.S. President Barack Obama has stated on a number of occasions that his administration is dedicated to transparency (Photo: AP)

U.S. President Barack Obama has stated on a number of occasions that his administration is dedicated to governmental transparency (Photo: AP)

According to USA Today,

“The White House said the cleanup of FOIA regulations is consistent with court rulings that hold that the office is not subject to the transparency law. The office handles, among other things, White House record-keeping duties like the archiving of e-mails.”

In practice, the new regulations won’t change much. Obama, following the lead of former president George W. Bush, has systematically rejected FOIA requests for records from the Office of Administration. Monday’s announcement simply makes that policy official.

Somewhat ironically, the White House revealed the changes to its FOIA policy on National Freedom of Information Day. This week is also Sunshine Week: a national initiative spearheaded by news organizations and watchdog groups aimed at educating the public about the importance of government transparency.

For transparency advocates, the White House’s “coincidental” timing simply added insult to injury:

“The irony of this being Sunshine Week is not lost on me,”

says Anne Weismann, executive director of the liberal organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Weismann added,

“It is completely out of step with the president’s supposed commitment to transparency. That is a critical office, especially if you want to know, for example, how the White House is dealing with e-mail.”

Anne Weismann accepts a Madison Award from the ALA on behalf of CREW (Photo Credit: ALA Washington Office)

March 15, 2010: Anne Weismann accepts a Madison Award from the ALA on behalf of CREW (Photo Credit: ALA Washington Office)

Unlike other White House offices, which have always been exempt from FOIA regulations, the Office of Administration has been responding to FOIA requests for the past three decades.

“This is an office that operated under the FOIA for 30 years, and when it became politically inconvenient, they decided they weren’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act any more,”

says Tom Fitton of the conservative organization Judicial Watch.

But despite all the criticism, the White House is standing firm, citing a 2009 decision from a federal appeals court in Washington. In that case, the court ruled that the Office of Administration was not subject to the FOIA, “because it performs only operational and administrative tasks in support of the president and his staff and therefore, under our precedent, lacks substantial independent authority.”

The court ruled that while the Office of Administration was required to archive all emails sent within the White House, the office had no obligation to release them under FOIA regulations.

But that doesn’t mean the messages will remain secret forever – under the Presidential Records Act, White House emails still have to be made public eventually. However, this disclosure doesn’t happen until at least five years after the end of the administration.

“You have a president who comes in and says, I’m committed to transparency and agencies should make discretionary disclosures whenever possible, but he’s not applying that to his own White House,”

says Weismann.

The White House has yet to explain why it took six years to formally acknowledge the 2009 court ruling.

Read the full story from USA Today.

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