Calls for More Sunshine Strike Wide Media Response

March 21, 2014

Open shmopen. "The government's own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that halfway through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records despite its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history."

That was one conclusion of an extensive Associated Press analysis of Freedom of Information Act performance, based on legally required FOIA reports and statistics. AP's story, by Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis, was just one of many this week. But it showed that unquestioning coverage of the administration's "Open Government Dashboard" and White House-mandated "Open Government Plans" might not serve the truth or the public.

The AP noted that federal FOIA denials based on claims of "national security" grew dramatically in the past year — even as the secrecy shrouding agencies like the National Security Agency was failing, revealing that it often hid illegal and unconstitutional abuses of power. And even though President Obama ordered agencies to reduce claims of "deliberative process," they did it more — spawning legends of reports that remained eternally in draft status as federal agencies shared them with industry but not the public.

Other Sunshine Week coverage also tried to take a broad view of how the federal government was doing on the openness front. Spoiler alert: not so good.

Aljazeera America blogged summaries of Sunshine Week events, but also entertained viewers with photos of pages that had been entirely blacked out by FOIA censors. Then there was the story of the Illinois reporter who was denied a copy of a story he himself had written — denied on HIPAA privacy grounds.

The National Security Archive did an audit that revealed half of federal agencies have still not updated their FOIA regulations as Congress required them to do in 2007 FOIA amendments.

One of the most-noted events actually came just before Sunshine Week — a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on "Reinvigorating FOIA for the Digital Age." It was held on March 11; witnesses included Melanie Pustay, who runs the Justice Department's program overseeing FOIA. The archived webcast of this event is online here.