A Policy of Lying: Why Does the Most Open and Transparent Administration in History Lie about Government Records?

By Sullum, Jacob | Reason, February 2012 | Go to article overview

A Policy of Lying: Why Does the Most Open and Transparent Administration in History Lie about Government Records?


Sullum, Jacob, Reason


WHEN HE TOOK office, Barack Obama promised "an unprecedented level of openness in Government." As part of that commitment, he pledged fidelity to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which he called "the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government."

It is hard to reconcile these lofty memos with the Justice Department's proposed regulation instructing federal agencies to falsely deny the existence of records sought under FOIA. But at least the Obama administration, which withdrew the regulation in November following a flood of criticism, is open about its desire to mislead us.

Enacted in 1966, FOIA "encourages accountability through transparency," as Obama put it in 2009. The law created a general assumption that Americans have a right to information about their government unless there is a good reason to withhold it, such as when disclosure would violate people's privacy, undermine a criminal investigation, or threaten national security.

Congress amended FOIA in 1986, adding Section 552(c), which addresses situations where confirming the existence of records would tip off the target of a criminal investigation, compromise a confidential informant, or reveal classified information. In such cases, agencies "may treat the records as not subject to the requirements of" FOIA, which the courts and Congress have long understood to mean issuing a response that neither confirms nor denies the records' existence.

But the Obama administration prefers to lie. Under the Justice Department's proposed rule, an agency with records believed to be covered by Section 552(c) "will respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist."

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted, that practice would "dramatically undermine government integrity" and impede judicial review of agencies' decisions to withhold records. Since requesters cannot demand a justification for withholding records they do not know exist, agencies would not have to convince a court that the information they believe qualifies for a FOIA exemption actually does. …

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