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This site is the inspiration of a former reporter/photographer for one of New England's largest daily newspapers and for various magazines. The intent is to direct readers to interesting political articles, and we urge you to visit the source sites. Any comments may be noted on site or directed to KarisChaf at gmail.

Monday, March 31, 2014

FOIA exemptions provide ample cover for bureaucrats hiding agency secrets, transparency advocates say -- By Mark Flatten, The Washington Examiner

Black columns run vertically down 700 pages, devoid of any information about the federal workers who spent thousands of hours doing union work while on the government payroll.

This is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

In the name of protecting employees’ privacy, USDA withheld their names, duty stations, job titles, pay grades and salaries. It even deleted names of the unions benefiting from the hours spent by these USDA workers who continued to draw full pay and benefits, courtesy of the taxpayers.

The level of secrecy is a stark example of the failings of FOIA, according to open government advocates. Agency bureaucrats are free to broadly interpret the nine exemptions in FOIA that allow them to withhold information about government employees and the documents they produce.

Interpretations vary about what information should be disclosed, despite directives from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder that there should always be a “presumption of openness” in weighing what to release.

The only recourse against an agency determined to keep its secrets is a costly lawsuit that can drag on for years.

“There are very strong incentives for agency officers to not release data, but there aren't any incentives on the other side to release data,” said Ginger McCall, director of the open government program at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency.

“There’s a real culture of secrecy within the agencies, and that is something that needs to be addressed,” McCall said.

A FOIA reform bill unanimously passed the House in February. It would put into law the presumption of transparency currently embodied in proclamations by the president and attorney general. But it would not change the FOIA exemptions that allow documents requested under FOIA to be withheld.

The USDA invoked the “personal privacy” exemption for federal employees to withhold data from the Washington Examiner.

Other FOIA exemptions cover things like national defense or foreign policy secrets, disciplinary actions, information about gas and oil wells and inter-agency memorandums.

FOIA reformers say the changes proposed in the House bill are positive, but without limiting the exemptions that can be invoked under FOIA, they are not likely to break the culture of secrecy at federal agencies.

“If we are really going to see the agencies apply the exemptions any differently we actually have to address some problems with the exemptions,” said Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment, another nonprofit transparency group.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a sponsor of the bill, acknowledged the problem with FOIA lies in partly in the exemptions, which are left intact in the legislation.

Issa is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and is co-sponsoring the FOIA bill with Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Putting the presumption favoring disclosure in the law will shift the burden to the agencies to show releasing requested information will cause specific harm, Issa said told the Examiner.

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