Washington

Obama Directs Staff to be Responsive to FOIA Requests

Information president or ex-presidents want to withold must be vetted by third party, Obama says 1/21/2009 12:30:00 PM Eastern

In one of his first executive orders, President Barack Obama has directed his staff to be responsive to Freedom of Information requests from journalists and others.

Leading by example, Obama said that information that he or any former president, wanted to withhold would have the extra vetting of a third party--either the White House counsel or attorney general. "Information will not be withheld just because I say so," he told staffers Wednesday according to a transcript supplied by the White House.

In a "Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act," the president gave the Attorney General 120 days to implement "principles of openness and transparency" in the context of FOIA requests.

One of the complaints from journalists has been that FOIA complaints were taking months, even years, to be responded to, and that information was being overclassified as off limits.

In another memorandum signed Wednesday, the president directed members of his administration to "operate under principles of openness, transparency and of engaging citizens with their government."

Obama briefed staffers about the new openness policies:

"The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that," he told his new White House. "For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.

"To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law," he said.

"I will also hold myself as President to a new standard of openness," said Obama. "Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution."

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