Open Government Advocates Pleased with Obama FOIA Reforms

New guidelines expand on openness principles president pledged in first day memo

"The Lights are back on." That is how one open government advocate reacted to the news that the Obama administration was beginning to implement its FOIA reform policy.

The Justice Department has followed through on its pledge to reform the government's approach to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests, which are a tool used by journalists and the general public to get access to government information.

The new guidelines, issued in memos to agency and department heads, expand on the openness principles expounded by President Barack Obama in a presidential memorandum on FOIA issued on his first day. They supercede guidelines issued under former Attorney General John Ashcroft shortly after 9/11.

Among the key points in the new guidelines are:

Attorney General Eric Holder has instructed agencies not to withhold records just because it is technically defensible, but to make "discretionary disclosures" and partial releases." The Ashcroft guidelines were widely criticized by journalism organizations as being overly restrictive under the rubric of national security.

There will also be a new standard for defending decisions to withhold records. "Now, the Department will defend a denial only if the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by one of the statutory exemptions, or disclosure is prohibited by law," said Justice in announcing the policy changes.

"Under the previous defensibility standard of the rules rescinded today," said Justice Thursday, "the Department had said it would defend a denial if the agency had a sound legal basis for its decision to withhold."

The attorney general also told agencies to have effective FOIA response systems in place. Some studies have found FOIA requests going unanswered for months and even years.

"The Holder memo is a refreshing change from the disastrous standard set by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Pres, which is a member of the Sunshine in Government initiative. "We hope it empowers federal employers who manage these public records to improve their services to the taxpayers who request them."

Justice will provide training and guidance on the new policy to agencies and other interested parties.

The FOIA changes are part of the president's pledge of a more transparent government overall.

The Justice announcement came during Sunshine in Government Week, which was started by media companies to promote open government.

Rick Blum, Sunshine In Government Initiative coordinator, praised the move. "By restoring the presumption that federal agencies should disclose information absent a foreseeable harm or a legal ban, today's memorandum sends a clear message: when in doubt, let it out. The lights are back on."

“The ACLU is pleased that the Obama administration has made government transparency a priority,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Strengthening FOIA is essential as we begin to chip away at the extreme secrecy of administrations past. By restoring the obligation of disclosure by the government, we will return to the original, open government objective of the Freedom of Information Act. A transparent government is an accountable government. That’s something we’ve been sorely missing in the last eight years. As we’ve seen, sunshine is the best of disinfectants and we look forward to this new and untainted era of government.”

Earlier this week, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, reintroduced  a bill that would revamp the FOIA laws by requiring that when Congress legislates any new statutory exemption to disclosure, “it must state its intention to do so explicitly and clearly in that bill,” saying that “the growing use of legislation to carve out new exemptions to FOIA poses a danger to the ideals of open government.”