Today, the Obama administration took another step towards disabling the wall of secrecy around the government that George W. Bush put into place, by directing agencies to handle information requests with a presumption of openness, unlike Bush who created new policies to deny requests.
Attorney General Eric Holder said, “By restoring the presumption of disclosure that is at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act, we are making a critical change that will restore the public’s ability to access information in a timely manner. The American people have the right to information about their government’s activities, and these new guidelines will ensure they are able to obtain that information under principles of openness and transparency.”
The Attorney General also changed the standard for defending a denial of an FOIA request. Under the Bush administration, an information request could be denied by an agency and defended by the Justice Department if there was “sound legal reasoning” behind the denial. The new standard is that a denial will only be defended if “an agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or disclosure is prohibited by law.” In other words only those denials that don’t fall under the FOIA or are illegal requests will be defended.
The Bush administration not only changed the standard for denials, but also eliminated an ombudsman position that was supposed to be monitoring agency compliance with FOIA requests. Oh, it gets even better. The Bush administration also created another category of information that didn’t have to be shared under FOIA, called sensitive but unclassified The Bush administration used this category to deny FOIA requests.
Neither the Bush administration’s behavior, nor the repudiation of it by the Obama administration is a surprise, but it is reassuring to know that if you request information from the government, the new administration will not be looking for ways to deny your request. This is policy change is an example of the difference between an administration that only thought the people needed to know what they told them, and an administration which believes that people have a right to know.