The administration that boldly called itself the “most transparent in history” has just changed course: It’s now exempting a key White House office from any record requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Office of Administration – which handles human resources, information technology, facilities and recordkeeping for the White House, including the archiving of emails – has been subject to FOIA requests since it was first established in 1977 under President Jimmy Carter.
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Now, though, the office is officially excluded from the law. The Obama administration said it made the change to reflect a 2009 court ruling that held the office is not subject to FOIA.
The ruling came from a case brought by the liberal-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) against the Bush administration for allegedly deleting more than 22 million emails the group had wanted to obtain.
The court said the office was exempt from the transparency law because it performed only operational and administrative support functions and lacked any independent authority.
It’s unclear, however, why the administration waited until Tuesday – four years after the court decision – to make the change to officially exclude the office from FOIA.
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A handful of other executive offices are also exempt from the law, including: the Office of the Vice President, the Council of Economic Advisers, the National Security Council, the Office of Policy Development, the Domestic Policy Council, the Office of National AIDS Policy, the National Economic Council and the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory.
The timing of the policy revision came in the middle of Sunshine Week – a fact that unsurprisingly set off a firestorm among transparency advocates already enraged at the Obama administration for its lax of FOIA compliance.
“This step makes mockery of the administration’s commitment to transparency, especially given that it’s Sunshine Week,” Anne Weisman, executive director of CREW – the same group that brought the suit against the Bush administration – said in a statement. “Apparently they have abandoned even the appearance of transparency.”
This year the White House set a record for censoring government files and denying access to requested information, according to an analysis by the Associated Press published Wednesday. The backlog of unanswered FOIA requests grew to more than 200,000 last year – an increase of 55 percent from the previous year. The administration reduced the number of employees tasked with responding to information requests by about 9 percent this year, the AP also noted.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest brushed off concerns about the FOIA exemption. But it comes at a time when the president’s promise of greater transparency is under real scrutiny, especially given the revelations about Hillary Clinton’s private email account while she was Secretary of State.
Two news outlets, the Associated Press and Gawker, have filed lawsuits against the State Dept. for failing to comply with FOIA – and journalists, reformists and lawmakers are hitting the administration hard over its efforts to suppress secrets.
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