President Obama’s FOIA Memo Sets a Tone of Transparency

Mark Boyer

Fred Kaplan has a nice column in Slate, noting that one of the most important decisions President Obama has made since taking office was lost in the shuffle and excitement of inauguration week. On Wednesday, Obama issued a memo to the heads of executive departments and federal agencies urging open cooperation with Freedom of Information Act requests. The memo instructs government officials to "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." The Bush administration encouraged federal agencies to protect information and resist FOIA requests, and in 2001 then-Attorney General John Ashcroft reassured government officials that the Justice Department would defend those that refused to release documents. From 1995 to 2001, federal agencies declassified 1.15 billion pages of documents under the Freedom of Information Act—an average of 190 million per year. From 2002 to 2006… agencies declassified 182 million pages in total—an average of just 36 million per year, less than one-fifth the volume. Since 2001, "many federal agencies have simply ignored the law requiring at least an acknowledgment of FOIA requests within 10 days," Kaplan writes. Pres. Obama's FOIA memo doesn't create a new law, but it does instruct the Director of the Office of Management and Budget "to update guidance to the agencies to increase and improve information dissemination to the public," which might ease the process of getting a FOIA request filled.

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