The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight

Witness and Testimony Documents
Director, Office of Government Information Services
National Archives and Records Administration
Executive Director, Collaboration on Government Secrecy
Retired Founding Director, Office of Information and Privacy, Department of Justice
President
Judicial Watch
Coordinator
Sunshine in Government
Director of Public Policy
Project on Government Oversight
March 17, 2011,

Chairman Darrell Issa Hearing Preview Statement

Thursday’s hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, entitled “The Freedom of Information Act: Crowd-Sourcing Government Oversight,” represents the heart of the committee’s mission – to hold the federal bureaucracy accountable and ensure the right of the American people to know how Washington spends their money.

The Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) is one of the most important tools for government transparency and accountability. It permits the private-sector, the media, watchdog groups, and the general public to scrutinize the activities of federal agencies – from the telephone logs and email correspondence of federal employees to internal memoranda, transcripts, and meeting minutes.

Minus a few specific exemptions designed to protect narrowly-defined privacy concerns, national security and law enforcement matters, claims of executive privilege and trade secrets, information about the government’s work is required by law to be publicly accessible. Indeed, every federal agency, commission, department and corporation – as well as the White House itself – falls under FOIA’s expansive authority.

But transparency is often the victim of electoral success. Every aspiring presidential candidate promises voters to inaugurate a new era of open government upon his or her election. And nearly every new administration immediately sets a course of delaying, redacting, or denying FOIA requests when the public disclosure of information is deemed politically inconvenient.

In light of our responsibility to ensure that all federal agencies respond to FOIA requests in a timely, substantive, and non-discriminatory manner, the Committee has initiated a comprehensive analysis of how the federal government handles FOIA procedures. In recent weeks, the Committee has witnessed firsthand the bureaucratic obstruction that the general public too-often experiences.

While many agencies are thorough and timely in their responses, some agencies have been either partially or completely non-responsive. Others have requested more time. Indeed, the Committee’s experience to date reveals inadequacies in FOIA, as well as a disparity in FOIA compliance among federal agencies.

The hearing will afford the Committee an opportunity to fully examine some of the problems associated with FOIA’s design and implementation, as well as Executive Branch non-compliance.