By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
Remember Day One of the Obama Administration and the President’s promise to become “the most transparent administration in history?” Well, that train hasn’t even left the station yet!
The reality is, after more than five years, President Obama and his administration have denied access to or censored government records an astonishing amount of the time, according to an excellent analysis of federal data by the Associated Press. In fact, last year alone, the AP report shows Washington’s efforts on open government were at their worst since the President took office. It pays to note this during Sunshine Week 2014.
Not surprisingly, the White House maintains the government is doing a good job, saying it has responded to more requests under FOIA than previously and that it’s released more information. But the AP data doesn’t quite back up that claim.
Of the roughly 700,000 records requests last year, the Administration invoked “exceptions” in more than 546,000 cases. These exceptions are only supposed to cover national security, personal privacy or business secrets. Additionally, the government turned down a whopping 86% of the FOIA requests which asked for “expedited” processing (which would move those requests to the head of the line in the cases of time-sensitive newsworthy material,) according to the AP study.
And some requests wait and wait and wait. The Pentagon, for example, has at least two requests still pending after 10 years and the CIA has at least four that are more than eight years old.
National security issues, you wonder? How about this: The AP’s request for HHS contracts with PR agencies being paid to promote the ACA is still languishing after more than a year. Requests for IRS documents and emails related to the tax-exempt controversy over tea party groups are still pending after more than 10 months.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, says the growing trend toward all these exemptions and exceptions hinders the public’s right to know. RTDNA couldn’t agree more. And Leahy, who was honored by the RTDNF for his work in support of the First Amendment, is even more pointed about the government’s use of the national security exemption. As he told the AP, “If you screw up in government, just mark it TOP SECRET.”
Sunshine Week is a good opportunity for us to be reminded of something that, unfortunately, is true year-round. We have a long way to go to become a truly transparent nation. Whether the issues are FOIA problems like these, the lack of a federal Shield Law, the absence of cameras in our Supreme Court and far too many others, it’s not surprising that the United States ranks below countries like Romania and Kazakhstan when it comes to global press freedom.
Can’t we do better? Of course we can—and we must!