In his first inaugural address, President Obama committed his government to transparency.
His exact words were that his administration would “do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”
Six years later, we can say definitively it is an unachieved goal. The president said one thing and did another. Ask Edward Snowden. Stonewall isn’t a term for gay pride anymore. It’s the new mechanism the Obama Administration uses to hide stuff from you. From secret email accounts to frustrating the intent of the Freedom of Information Act, there is a lot not to like here.
In fact, in 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder ordered all federal agencies to update the Freedom of Information Act and make it more accessible to citizens. Four years later, 66 of 99 federal agencies had done nothing. And Pro Publica, a citizen’s watchdog group, reported on a Bloomberg News report that as of 2013, 19 out of 20 cabinet level agencies failed to properly fulfill FOIA requests.
This week, is Sunshine Week, seven days set aside by the national media to showcase and spotlight a citizen’s right to know. In Florida, we have sunshine laws. The federal government has the Freedom of Information Act that demands openness prevail, not that there be veils. There is a simple theme to all this; that open government is good government.
Unfortunately, from the White House to your local town hall, governments play cover up. Nowhere is it worse than in Florida, where Rick Scott has secretized the state house in Tallahassee. Of course, you have a right to know what the governor is doing at any time. But don’t count on him. He never read that Facebook page which says ‘share.’ A great editorial in this week’s Sun-Sentinel exposes Scott for the scandal that he is.
Here we are in the age of cyberspace, when information should instantaneously be at your fingertips. Instead, we have the National Security Administrations spying on our cellphones and sending drones over your homes. Meanwhile, government agencies are not facilitating ease of access. They are instead creating walls of obstruction. This is totally unacceptable, whether it comes from a small village in a suburban county or a large house on Pennsylvania Avenue.
This past week, the South Florida Gay News has been written about in the New York Times, thanks to a public information request. Last year we asked the Broward Sheriff’s office to share with us any e-mails (in a 5-month period) in their files that contained words such as “faggot.” We got their reply. It came with a note saying it would take four years and $399,000.
Do they take Mastercard? You can’t hold freedom of information hostage to a dollar bill.
Given the technology, which exists today, BSO’s reply was illogical. Other agencies scoffed at their number. However, one thing you can’t laugh at is how difficult it is to pry information from government. Two years ago, when SFGN conducted an investigation into the illegal entrapment stings engineered by the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, we had to pay thousands of dollars to get hundreds of police reports, which they delayed by months.
If it seems like a lot, consider that the researcher, who requested DEA information on the capture of ‘El Chapo,’ was given a bill for $1.46 million to search, review, and process documents for that mission.
We are not alone. Can you believe the Labor Department initially asked the Associated Press to pay more than $1 million for its email addresses?
Unfortunately, in state after state, governments are cutting back the budgets for the agencies that handle disclosure. Consequently, requests for information are inevitably delayed and illegally discounted. This too is unacceptable. Journalists need access to records in order to publish the truth.
This year, Congress has a chance to pass a bipartisan bill, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015. Even though that sounds a little bit like it violates the adage ‘I am here from the government and I am here to help you,’ this bill needs to pass.
It would codify the policy President Obama issued in his 2009 memorandum by requiring federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA.
Under this approach, agencies may withhold records under FOIA exemptions only if they can identify a specific and foreseeable harm that may result from release of information, or if disclosure is prohibited by law.
Freedom of information is an indispensable tool to journalists, educators, historians, students, and anyone who believes in a free press. The people we put in power rent space. We have to hold them accountable while they are there. They can’t be allowed to play ‘hide and seek’ with the truth.
Sunshine is a disinfectant. Transparency is healthy for government and other living things. Our government needs to stop talking about how they want to try to be more transparent.
They need to listen to Yoda’s advice, “Do or do not... there is no try.”