Obama administration looking to circumvent Freedom of Information Act

President Obama promised on the campaign trail that his administration would make a dedicated commitment to transparency, but so far his presidency has done the exact opposite.

For one he said his attempt to reform healthcare for the American people would be debated on C-Span, but what eventually became to be known as the Healthcare Affordability Act was in fact written behind closed doors by healthcare insurance and pharmaceutical insiders. He has invoked the “state secrets” privilege to derail litigation about government misdeeds in the war on terror just like the previous republican administration. He has refused to release his secret interpretation of the Patriot Act, which led Democratic Senator and member of the Intelligence Committee Ron Wyden to say:

“I want to deliver a warning this afternoon: When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry,”

The Obama administration has also blocked the release of photographs documenting the abuse of prisoners by U.S. service members. All of that pales in comparison though to the administration’s latest attempt to hide their actions from public scrutiny. The Justice Dept. recently proposed to allow government agencies to lie about the existence of documents being sought under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

The way the law works currently is that if the government doesn’t want to admit the existence of a document it believes to be exempt from FOIA, it may advise the person making the request that it can neither confirm nor deny the document’s existence. Under the new proposed regulation, an agency that withholds a document “will respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.” This would basically make FOIA completely irrelevant as government agencies would be able to outright lie to U.S. citizens about the existence of documents.

The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t provide a blanket right to public access to government documents. It’s reasonable to have exceptions for certain classified national security or foreign policy documents if their release would damage American interests. It is also reasonable that documents that fall into that category be subject to review by the courts, but it is completely unacceptable as well as undemocratic to just lie about their existence. Change? Without a doubt, change for the worse.

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