Fighting Secrecy

For more than four decades, the landmark right-to-know law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has given the public (and organizations like Public Citizen fighting on behalf of the public) an essential tool for prying open the veil of secrecy surrounding government activities. In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” and FOIA is the beacon of light that’s bright enough to shine into the darkest recesses of the government.

But there are limits to the FOIA law’s reach. Nine official exemptions to the law prevent information from being released to the public concerning specific types of documents—for example classified information related to national security or information compiled for law enforcement purposes. Some of the exemptions are grossly overused; “Exemption 5,” for example, can indefinitely keep secret communications between and within agencies on issues like why one rule was enacted instead of a stronger safeguard.

From the start of his Presidency, Barak Obama has officially called for more openness by government agencies — including directing Attorney General Eric Holder to require agencies to disclose more information to the public, which Holder did in 2009. That policy, called “the presumption of openness,” directs agencies to disclose information to the public unless prohibited by law or if the agency can see a direct harm protected by one of the numbered exemptions.

But even though President Obama’s administration has a goal of being the most transparent ever, it’s imperative that his changes be reflected in the language of the FOIA law so that this presumption of openness remains in place after his adminstration.

Public Citizen and our partners in the open government community were very pleased when improvements to the FOIA law were passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives and even happier when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a stronger bipartisan bill in the Senate. The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 2520) cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously earlier this month with more than 70 groups signing the letter of support drafted by Public Citizen and Openthegovernment.org.

Now, there are but a few short days to get this important legislation across the finish line before the end of the 113th Congress. Please let your senators know that you want to see critical improvements made to FOIA.

More can be done to increase the public’s right to know under FOIA, but S. 2520 is an excellent way to increase the amount of information “sunlight” shining on the workings of government.

Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.