Is FOIA any better under Obama? An anecdote today, data later


Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff report on the Obama administration’s mixed record on transparency got me to thinking about our own experience with FOIA requests. Isikoff notes,

As a senator, Barack Obama denounced the Bush administration for holding “secret energy meetings” with oil executives at the White House. But last week public-interest groups were dismayed when his own administration rejected a Freedom of Information Act request for Secret Service logs showing the identities of coal executives who had visited the White House to discuss Obama’s “clean coal” policies. One reason: the disclosure of such records might impinge on privileged “presidential communications.” The refusal, approved by White House counsel Greg Craig’s office, is the latest in a series of cases in which Obama officials have opted against public disclosure.

Anu is our FOIA maven and is going to audit our FOIA log to see whether there’s been any improvement in response times since Obama issued a memorandum stating, in part, “All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”

Don’t take my word for it, but my guess is that we won’t see much improvement.

While we wait for Anu to crunch the numbers, I thought an anecdote might be useful. Back in March 2007, I FOIAed the Office of Naval Research for information on a contract it awarded to a company called Mobilvox. Mobilvox was of interest for several reasons: they’d hired a bunch of different lobbyists — the now defunct PMA Group, KSA Consulting (which employed Rep. John Murtha’s brother), Chambers & Associates (whose name partner worked for Randy “Duke” Cunningham), and GSP Consulting, a Pittsburgh-based firm that includes a former Murtha staffer. They’d gotten earmarks from both Murtha and Rep. James Moran, and they maintained offices in both districts.

When I FOIAed the Office of Naval Research, I asked for a copy of the above linked contract, any correspondence with ONR regarding the contract (including letters, emails, faxes, etc.), any forms SF-LLL (see here for an explanation of what that is). I won’t bore you with the details of my dealings with the two different private contractors that handle FOIA requests for ONR, or the multiple contacts I’ve gotten asking (perhaps hoping against hope) that I was no longer interested in seeing my FOIA request fulfilled.

In January 2008, I received some of the pages of the contract (no correspondence yet). Missing were five pages that included the description of work to be performed and pricing information — I learned last week that ONR “is still in the process of working with the submitter regarding redacting these pages” — a full six months after I got part of the contract and fifteen months after I filed my initial FOIA request.

Waiting for FOIA requests was always like watching paint dry–it still is. Third party contractors still do a lot of the work of responding to FOIA requests and private entities mentioned in FOIA requests can review information requested and argue against its disclosure. It’s a slow, cumbersome process encrusted with all sorts of different rules. A “presumption to disclosure” doesn’t by itself fix anything.