White House Not So Transparent on FOIA

When President Barack Obama first took office, he promised “an unprecedented level of openness.” Instead, we have seen an unprecedented level of obstruction regarding the Freedom of Information Act.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Washington lawyer Katherine Meyer, who has filed Freedom of Information Act cases under six administrations, dating to the late 1970s. “This administration is the worst on FOIA issues,” Meyer recently told POLITICO. “The worst. There’s just no question about it.”

Meyer added that she is “really stunned” by the number of barriers that have been raised.

I share her frustration. During my four years as Texas attorney general, I worked aggressively to make our state government more open and responsive to the public. When I came to Washington in 2002, I sought to achieve similar progress at the federal level. In recent years, I have teamed up with my Democratic colleague, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy to strengthen FOIA and promote greater transparency across the board. Indeed, we co-sponsored the most significant FOIA reform in a generation.

Under this president, however, the FOIA process has been corrupted. During his first year in office, the Department of Homeland Security began forcing its career employees to send major FOIA requests to the senior political staff of Secretary Janet Napolitano for review and approval. Obama political appointees even demanded to know the political affiliation of certain FOIA requestors, according to The Associated Press.

When a House Oversight panel began investigating this scandal, DHS officials repeatedly obstructed it, seeking to “avoid both the shame of public scrutiny and potential criminal prosecution.”

According to the subsequent House report, DHS political appointees tampered with witnesses, attempted to misappropriate committee documents and retaliated against whistleblowers.

Americans have witnessed similar obstruction during the congressional investigation into Operation Fast and Furious, the infamous program under which the Obama administration deliberately allowed the sale of nearly 2,000 guns to drug cartels in Mexico and then intentionally lost track of them. We have learned that the administration also retaliated against Fast and Furious whistleblowers. When various agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives voiced concerns about the gunwalking plan, according to a joint congressional report, they were told “to ‘get with the program’ because senior ATF officials had sanctioned the operation.”

In addition, skeptical agents were removed from the ATF Phoenix Group as punishment for their dissent.

Fifteen months have passed since two Fast and Furious weapons were found at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered, yet Attorney General Eric Holder and the president have not held anyone accountable. Even worse, Holder has refused to give the Terry family and the American people the answers they deserve.

Holder has instead treated the congressional investigation with contempt. His sworn testimony appears to be contradicted by Justice Department memos. If he won’t cooperate fully with congressional subpoenas, what does that say about his attitude toward government transparency?

Small wonder that the Justice Department recently received a mock award from the nonpartisan National Security Archive, for displaying the “worst open government performance” of any federal agency in 2011. The department was cited for its mistreatment of whistleblowers and its efforts to weaken FOIA, among other things.

As we mark the eighth annual National Sunshine week, I must ask: When Obama vowed in January 2009 to launch “a new era” of government transparency, is this really what he had in mind?

Originally posted on Politico.


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