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The White House FOIA Scandal Is Not a Scandal

The decision by the White House this week to remove certain FOIA regulations from the books is poorly timed, but it doesn't really change anything.

by Justin Rohrlich
Mar 19 2015, 2:10pm

Photo via Wikipedia

Related: Read more from 'Primary Sources,' the VICE News FOIA blog

On President Barack Obama's first day in office, he promised the "most transparent" administration in US history.

"The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails," reads a memorandum from Obama to the heads of executive departments and agencies. "The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears…. All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government."

So when the White House amended federal regulations this week exempting from FOIA the Office of Administration (OOA) — the White House department that handles things like facilities management, IT support, scheduling, and security — the announcement generated a substantial amount of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing. Which hasn't entirely made sense.

"I would say that it's not a scandal," Nate Jones, FOIA Project Director at George Washington University's National Security Archive, told VICE News. "The public hasn't had access to this information for more than a decade."

For years, records from the OOA were available under FOIA. That policy was effectively reversed by the George W. Bush administration, prompting Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog group, to sue. They lost the suit in 2007. So the White House's "change" in policy isn't really a change at all. In a briefing on Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the "administrative change that was announced this week has no impact on our compliance with the Freedom of Information Act," and that it is "a matter of just cleaning up the records that are on the books."

'We had to sue for them to start releasing the White House visitor logs. They never mention that part.'

That said, this week marks the 10th anniversary of Sunshine Week, which promotes open government. It does not appear to be great timing on the part of the Obama administration.

"[The decision] shows the extremely low priority high-level White House advisors, including its communications team, place on FOIA," Jones said. "It's just crazy they chose Sunshine Week to flag the lack of access. Can you imagine a regulation with anti-environmental optics being rolled out on Earth Day?"

Earnest pointed to the fact that the White House has "voluntarily released" 4 million names in White House visitor logs as a "good example" of the administration's commitment to transparency. Technically, releasing the visitor logs is voluntary. But as Anne Weismann, CREW's chief counsel and interim executive director, told VICE News, "We had to sue for them to start releasing the White House visitor logs. They never mention that part."

The Obamacare debate was raging at the time of that suit, and Weismann said lobbyists seemingly clandestinely visiting the White House made for "bad optics." That's why, even though the Obama administration won the case brought by CREW, they agreed to "voluntarily" start releasing names.

This week's move by the White House "has no bearing on the Office of Administration and the role that they do play in ensuring that the administration is the most transparent administration in history," Earnest insisted at Tuesday's press briefing.

Related: The government's latest FOIA response: 15 blank pages

However, an analysis of federal data released Wednesday by the Associated Press found that the Obama administration "set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the US Freedom of Information Act." According to the report, the government "took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn't find documents, and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy."

"When it comes to our record on transparency, we have a lot to be proud of," Earnest said on board Air Force One Wednesday. "And frankly, it sets a standard that future administrations will have to live up to."

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @justinrohrlich

Photo via Wikipedia