In recognition of Sunshine Week, the fourth estate’s annual focus on transparency in government, The Durango Herald and Cortez Journal looked into how well local government officials measured up when it came to openness. And with few exceptions, they scored well.
Would that the same could be said of the highest reaches of our federal government.
An Associated Press analysis conducted under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act shows the Obama administration has claimed legal exemptions to requests for public records at a greater rate than its predecessors. It has refused a record number of times to turn over files promptly and, after six years in office, has made few improvements to its history of not sharing information with the public.
It is a poor record by any measure, and an abysmal one for an administration coming to office pledging to be the most transparent in history.
The only areas of improvement found by the AP were in the categories of reducing the backlog of old requests and a slight increase in the number of times copying fees were waived. Beyond that, the administration’s record last year was the worst since Obama took office.
Take, for example, its record on national security. Last year, the government withheld information citing “national security” a record 8,496 times – a 57 percent increase over the year before. Most of those involved requests for information from the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency. But that total also included six denials from the Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, two from the Environmental Protection Agency and one from the National Park Service.
National security can certainly be a legitimate cause for secrecy. But it is hard to believe anyone actually fills out a FOIA request for nuclear-launch codes, the positions of submarines or how to spoof spy satellites. What then are those thousands of denials about?
And the Park Service? Or the Farm Service?
There is also a “deliberative process” exemption to FOIA requests. The idea is officials should not be held accountable for what may be no more than thinking out loud while contemplating some action. But five years after Obama ordered his administration to use that excuse less often, it invoked it a record of almost 82,000 times last year.
That is not acting in accordance with the spirit of the law. It is straightforward secrecy.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., is chairman on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He described the situation well, saying, “Relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public’s right to know. It becomes too much of a temptation. If you screw up in government, just make it top secret.”
The AP says it “could not determine whether the administration was abusing the national security exception or whether the public asked for more documents about sensitive subjects.”
But the AP has been waiting for government contracts with public-relations firms to promote Obamacare for more than a year. Similar requests for files about IRS handling of tax-exempt political groups and emails between Democratic PACs and tea-party groups have been on hold for months.
So, too, have enquiries about Benghazi, the NSA’s phone record collections and letters written to federal agencies by Rep. Paul Ryan, R. Wis., before his vice-presidential run.
Justice delayed is justice denied. And whether critics or defenders of the Obama administration are right about any particular policy or perceived scandal, no one can be satisfied or vindicated if little is known until everything is past. Secrecy smothers democracy – and it must be contested.