FOIA is Back: Now That is Change I Can Believe In

In America shaves it's "Bush", legal issues/law/courts, media, President Barack Obama, U.S government on January 24, 2009 by Editor Z

Aside from the seemingly idiotic decision to exempt a former Retheon lobbyist and nominee to be Assiatant Secretary of Defense from the new Obama ethics rules, Obama has by and large done a good job restoring ethics to government and refashioning America’s image from the ruins of the Bush/Cheney era, especially through some of his first executive orders.

The closure of Guantanamo Bay, the banning of torture (“harsh interrogation techniques), and closing of CIA black sites have been the more high profile acts. Obama has also done something though consistent both with the desires of our founding fathers to have a well informed public, and his own repeated expressed desire to get the public more involved in government and accountability, and that dramatically reverses some of the largest barriers erected by the Bush/Cheney administration to keep journalists, the legislative branch, attorneys, scholars, and the American people divorced from the information that informs the public of the workings of the governed.

Here is just one that relates to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was created in 1966, a mechanism that would allow scholars, the press, and others the information to get government documents from various agencies. Under Bush/Cheney documents would be handled under a presumption of secrecy; meaning unless they were forced to release it they would assume that it was to be kept secret. Well President Obama has reversed that rule stating that his administration and government agencies will handle the release of documents with a presumption of disclosure. Meaning that according to this act the days of keeping documents away from the public purely for the sake of shielding themselves from public scrutiny, political embarrassment, excessive reclassification, or secrecy for secrecy’s sake are over.

Here is the first part of the text of that order:


SUBJECT: Freedom of Information Act

A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should 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 presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.


Now I know many will retort by saying that this will force the government to disclose information that could be vital to National security and that could be dangerous during the war on terror, however I would imagine the neoconservatives now out of power won’t be saying that. But the Freedom of Information Act has several categories of information, including National security, that are exempted from being released under FOIA.

Obama is also reversing portions of the Bush/Cheney administration Presidential Records Act that allowed a President to keep large amounts of Presidential and Vice Presidential records from being accessed by the public.

Now I have never requested such information, but as an aspiring journalist I know that a well informed public and press makes for a well functioning and ethical government. That was always one thing I hated most of all about the Bush/Cheney administration, they spent more time intimidating political and partisan opponents,journalists, and everyone else, with a garrison mindset that the public were not their masters but their enemies that the public became disengaged, uninformed, and I firmly believe in part got us in the malaise and disaster we find our selves trying to get out of today.



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