Karen Kaiser, an attorney who leads the FOIA legal work for The Associated Press, spoke about the importance of the Freedom of Information Act during a gathering of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in Des Moines today.
Kaiser, as you might expect, advocates for the active use of FOIA and cited several examples in which important news stories were done using data and information gained from FOIA requests.
She also points out that, despite the Obama administration’s public push to post data and records online and be more transparent, “Exemption 5” was used at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year – an increase of 49 percent over President George W. Bush’s last year in office. That is the exemption for “intra-agency documents, such as memos that reflect pre-decisional discussions within an agency.”
Kaiser describes some specific struggles the AP has engaged in with the Department of Homeland Security and reveals the documents it eventually pried loose showed that political staff was involved in revewing FOIA requests:
When Homeland Security failed to respond within the 20-day period required by statute, AP filed an administrative appeal. The agency ignored that too. So we reached out to OGIS, and OGIS was able to help. After several discussions with Homeland Security, OGIS was able to successfully negotiate for disclosure, and AP received nearly 1,000 pages of information. Despite blacked-out passages contained in the release, the information described in remarkable detail a department policy put in place after President Obama’s election requiring a wide range of FOIA requests to be vetted by senior political appointees before being released. The political staff sought information about people who made the requests – where they lived, whether they were private citizens or reporters, and details about the organizations where they worked. If a member of Congress sought documents, employees were told to specify Republican or Democrat. Even AP’s request for Homeland Security emails was itself submitted for review by the agency’s political advisors.
Kaiser offers five specific pieces of advice for news organizations using FOIA, that include actually using FOIA to sensitize agencies to their need to respond and opening up lines of communication with government agencies. Read the full text of her speech for more suggestions.