Following up with FOIA at DHS

Emails that had been only partially released last summer by the Department of Homeland Security have been released without redactions just in time for a congressional committee to ask agency appointees about allegations the department let political concerns influence its compliance with the Freedom of Information Act under the Obama Administration.

A July 21, 2010 Associated Press article (“AP IMPACT: A political filter for info requests”) revealed that DHS had been shunting certain FOIA requests into a pipeline for review by political appointees. While the Department maintained that less than 0.5 percent of requests had been held for such review and that political appointees ordered no documents improperly withheld, House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa summoned two DHS officials to testify at a hearing on Thursday. (Also scheduled to testify are DHS Acting IG Charles Edwards and EPIC’s John Verdi.)

This also follows up on concerns Issa had expressed the year before, with Senator Charles Grassley, when the two wrote to inspectors general at 29 agencies to find out whether such practices were an exception or a rule.

There are a few subtle points we’d like to highlight here. First, the subsequent release of unredacted emails raises questions about the propriety of the initial redactions – and suggests the department was being unduly cautious in withholding information. Second, the Associated Press reported that DHS “never responded to its formal appeal” – not a good sign. Finally, we take some pride in noting that the July 2010 AP story concluded by noting that the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) had helped resolve the initial “seven-month disagreement.”

FOIA Oversight in the House

SGI Coordinator Rick Blum testified about FOIA’s capabilities and constraints at a full meeting of the House Committee on Government and Oversight Reform, as one of several witnesses at “The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight. Joining Blum on the panel were Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services, Dan Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy, Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, and Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy at the Project on Government Oversight.

Chairman Darrell Issa framed several issues early and quickly by suggesting that FOIA should expand, but ultimately become obsolete as agencies evolve from a request-based model of releasing information to a world of wide-ranging, affirmative disclosures, as technology makes it increasingly simple for large volumes of information to go online for public access. Issa expressed dismay at the tendency of government actors to have an easy time praising transparency but a harder time practicing it; he also noted that FOIA reform need not be partisan, citing efforts last year to repeal secrecy provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Ranking member Elijah Cummings added that he had just reintroduced legislation from the previous session of Congress which had passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, including Issa’s: a package of five reforms called the Transparency and Openness in Government Act (H.R. 1144).

Members of the committee and witnesses wrestled with several persistent issues: How can we harness technology to streamline bureaucracy and maximize the sharing of information? How can we tell which changes in policy and practice contribute to the most improvement within agencies? Are there specific best practices that can be discerned from some agencies and applied at other agencies (actually, OGIS has crafted a six-page “best practices” report, but it seems to be an ongoing process)?

We look forward to continuing this discussion, and others, inspired by Sunshine Week and increased attention from the rich variety of people and offices involved.

OGIS announces annual report, new blog

Our friends at the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) are expanding the office’s online presence with a new blog, “The FOIA Ombudsman: Information and Advice”. Although the office and its staff have been busy with Sunshine Week activities, they have also found time to release their first annual office report: “The First Year: Building Bridges Between FOIA Requesters and Federal Agencies”. The report shows the office working to integrate statutory directions, practical expectations, and competing policy priorities as it strives to help both requesters and agencies use FOIA more efficiently and effectively.

Art of Access rounds up Sunshine Week activities

Freedom-of-information legend Charles Davis provides a great roundup of Sunshine Week highlights for today, including today’s hearing, at the Art of Access Blog.  Worth checking out, as he keeps tabs on the good and bad in DC and around the country.

Advocates, officials discuss sunshine measures

Here’s a brief summary of testimony by witnesses at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning on the Freedom of Information Act.  Our appreciation to Chairman Patrick Leahy for holding the hearing (and adjusting the schedule to avoid conflicting with “FOI Day” at the Freedom Forum).

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This week’s forecast: Sunshine!

Update: SGI coordinator Rick Blum will be testifying before Darrell Issa & the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Thursday, March 17 on FOIA.

It’s Sunshine Week!  Yes, for the next seven days, the Sunshine in Government Initiative will join many other groups, journalists, activists, and citizens in celebrating Sunshine Week, from March 13-19, with a variety of events and activities designed to raise awareness of our efforts to improve the availability of government information for the public.

Monday, March 14 Freedom of Information Day Celebration (9:30 AM, Collaboration on Government Secrecy)
Lobbying reform panel discussion (2:00 PM, Advisory Committee on Transparency, 2203 Rayburn)
Tuesday, March 15 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on FOIA (10:15 AM, 226 Dirksen)
Wednesday, March 16 Freedom of Information Day (8:30 AM, at the Freedom Forum)
Thursday, March 17 James Madison’s birthday 

Oversight & Government Reform Committee hearing (9:30am start, 2154 Rayburn HOB) [added 3/15/11]

Friday, March 18 OpenTheGovernment.org‘s Sunshine Week event/webcast: “The Road Forward on Open Government” (12:00 PM, at the Center for American Progress)

While Washington-based, these events reflect issues of nationwide interest and impacts. Journalists and media organizations across the country will be covering the policies and people involved, from national figures to local heroes.

Senate to Hold Sunshine Week FOIA Hearing

Longtime FOIA supporter and open-government leader Senator Patrick Leahy has announced the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a FOIA oversight hearing during Sunshine Week, “The Freedom of Information Act: Ensuring Transparency and Accountability in the Digital Age”. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear from witnesses with experience in government and as requesters.

The hearing, set for Tuesday, March 15 at 10:15 AM (226 Dirksen), will feature two panels:

Panel I:

Miriam Nisbet
Director, Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)
National Archives and Records Administration
College Park, Maryland

Melanie Pustay
Director, Office of Information Policy
Department of Justice
Washington, D.C.

Panel II:

Sarah Cohen
Sunshine In Government Initiative
Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and
Public Policy, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University
Durham, North Carolina

John Podesta
President and Chief Executive
Center for American Progress
Washington, D.C.

Thomas Fitton
President
Judicial Watch
Washington, D.C.

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