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Here's one way Obama can burnish his legacy

March 17, 2014, at 12:06 AM
 

It won't surprise researchers, journalists, and historians to know that almost half of federal agencies do not comply with a law requiring agencies to modernize their Freedom of Information Act policies, and that a majority are out of step with the policy voiced by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Nate Jones, the FOIA guru at the National Security Archives at George Washington University, along with archive director Tom Blanton and researcher Lauren Harper scrutinized the published and practiced FOIA policies at more than 100 federal agencies, and you can see who gets darts and laurels here. (Disclosure: Jones and I are working together on an unrelated project).

FOIA remains an incredibly powerful tool to compel the government to disclose information. A mandatory declassification review process can pry loose some of the government's darkest past secrets. But the FOIA process is only as good as the incentives given to people who process the requests and the way that they are supervised. To put it mildly, the CIA's FOIA officers aren't going to presume to try to figure out how to disclose something.

Some FOIA officials can be great; they'll point you in the right direction, or help you edit your requests to net more documents, or even help you bridge the mind-numbing bureaucratic roadblocks that pop up every time your subject request involves more than one agency. Others are just horrible. When it comes to national security information, FOIA decisions are maddeningly inconsistent.

FOIA requests can force the government to disclose how it chooses contractors, how it disciplines wayward employees, how efficiently it spends its money, and how it holds itself accountable.

In times of budget stress, Congress isn't going to spend more on FOIA. But if President Obama wanted to take a stand in favor of transparency, there are worse ways to do so than a presidential push for real FOIA reform. Real FOIA reform would require that agencies be accountable for their processes. It would increase the number of FOIA processors at each agency. It would expedite processing times. It would allow much more transparent appeals. It would be technologically modern. It would not necessarily be adversarial. FOIA officers might be rewarded for helping requesters find the documents and information they need.

Maybe it's a pipe dream. But Obama's current record here is not very good. A lot of his problems aren't his, and he can't fix them. This one he can, if he pays attention and takes the time.

 

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