San Antonio Express-News: Freedom of information update vital

San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board
Originally published Aug. 28, 2014

SAN ANTONIO — The best measurement of government openness is to track the records it makes public.

Since his first day in office, President Barack Obama has talked a good game about government openness, but he has failed to deliver.

In fact, his administration has been one of the more secretive, denying and censoring records at a record rate and prosecuting journalists over leaks.

This, despite a policy directive from the administration for agencies to assume records are open to the public.

All the more reason then to support the proposed FOIA Improvement Act, a necessary piece of bipartisan legislation from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The acronym, FOIA, stands for the Freedom of Information Act, which became law after the Watergate scandal.

For starters, the update ensures federal agencies process records requests with the presumption the information is public. It also clarifies that records can’t be withheld just because they might be embarrassing.

More significant, though, it addresses the disconcerting trend by government agencies to hide records in “draft” form, citing a “deliberative process.”

This exemption, known as FOIA’s Exemption 5, was intended as a way for government employees to have frank discourse about an issue.

But it has been distorted and manipulated with time. Any document can be designated as a draft and then withheld from the public.

In March, the Associated Press reported that in 2013 the federal government used this exemption to withhold materials 81,572 times, a record.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for open government, recently highlighted how Exemption 5 allowed the government to withhold the last volume of the CIA’s history of the Bay of Pigs disaster, which is more than 30 years old.

The FOIA Improvement Act would narrow this exemption and provide a 25-year sunset.

This necessary update is supported by an array of organizations, including the Sunlight Foundation, Amnesty International USA and the American Civil Liberties Union.

If you care about freedom, then you should care about this.

Cornyn and Leahy should be credited for taking this issue seriously.

Congress and the president should follow suit.

In a free society, especially in an era of digital record keeping and data collection, it is paramount the public has access to government records.