FOI Advocate News Blog

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The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit

May 12, 2015 12:28 PM

When his first term began in 2009, President Barack Obama issued a directive to federal agencies to treat requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with “a presumption of openness.” But his White House counsel followed with a memorandum to agencies saying they should consult the White House anytime a request involved what he called executive-branch “equities.”

The result has been an administration that has set records for denying and censoring government information requested under the FOIA. Though the White House hailed the most recent report on FOIA activities as “a lot to brag about” for allegedly improving government transparency, The Associated Press reported that the data instead showed that “the government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.”

And: “It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged. Its backlog of unanswered requests at year’s end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000. It also cut by 375, or about 9 percent, the number of full-time employees across government paid to look for records. That was the fewest number of employees working on the issue in five years.” Continue>>>

May 8, 2015 1:10 PM

Like motherhood, ice cream and the all-expenses-paid vacation, seemingly everybody should like transparency in government. The specter of elected or unelected officials making decisions behind closed doors conjures up visions of corruption and would seem to signify government on behalf of private interests. For this reason, most democratic governments, to varying degrees, now operate under various laws and rules intended to promote openness.

As a card-carrying good-government type, I am supposed to like transparency, and I generally do think it's a good thing. Certainly there are real downsides to secrecy and backroom deals. There are many positive effects that can come from subjecting public processes to greater scrutiny and from requiring the disclosure of processes and data. Transparency itself, however, is not without its pitfalls. So what's wrong with government in the sunshine? Here are a few of my concerns:

• Freedom of information laws can become excuses for not disclosing information. All freedom of information acts (FOIAs) contain exceptions -- that is, lists (in some cases long ones) of categories of information that a government is not required to provide to the public. There are strong justifications, such as privacy concerns, for many of these exceptions. They can, however, become an excuse for secrecy or (since FOIAs normally give the government specific deadlines for response to requests) delaying action on FOIA inquiries. Continue>>>

May 8, 2015 1:04 PM

The State Department has been dismissing about half of the press requests it receives for information under open government laws – a pattern of rejection that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee described on Wednesday as unacceptable and embarrassing.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking member of the committee, said the State Department has repeatedly failed to respect the country’s open government laws, like the Freedom of Information Act, more commonly known as FOIA. Reporters often use FOIA requests to make public previously unknown information about federal agencies. The State Department is one of many agencies obligated to comply with open government laws and yet its refusal to relinquish that information has forced The Associated Press to file a lawsuit against the department in March.

“This is unacceptable,” the Vermont Democrat said during a Wednesday congressional hearing on open government issues. “While I recognize that the number of FOIA requests has increased over the years and that the requests can be complex, this is not a reason to fall down on the job.” Continue>>>

May 8, 2015 12:59 PM

For two groups on opposing sides of the political spectrum, requests to the Export-Import Bank for records under the Freedom of Information Act yield different results.

In November 2013, Americans for Limited Government filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between a consulting firm with ties to the Clinton administration and Export-Import Bank officials. Today—more than 500 days later—the bank has yet to respond to the conservative government watchdog’s request, and Ex-Im’s delayed response has prompted congressional inquiries.

However, an examination of public FOIA logs from the bank found the super PAC American Bridge 21st Century has been more successful in obtaining records from Ex-Im. Continue>>>

May 8, 2015 12:54 PM

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) pressed the State Department on May 6 about compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, specifically with regards to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email.

Excerpts are below.
Cornyn: “There’s this idea out there that the Freedom of Information Act is something we do for the press. That is a fundamentally flawed way to look at it from my perspective. This is about the public’s information that was generated by people who work for the government and information that was generated by their tax dollars. And I believe there should be a presumption that the information that is held by the U.S. government should be open and accessible to the public. …

“The 37 out of 100 that the State Department has gotten on your score card for FOIA is an embarrassing failure of the agency, and I don’t know how we could call it anything different. But what really bothers me is when people plan in a premeditated and deliberate sort of way to avoid the Freedom of Information Act and federal government requirements that require them to make public information available to the public, and of course we are all familiar the news accounts of what happened with former Secretary Clinton. Ms. Barr, did either you or Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, know that Secretary Clinton was operating exclusively on a personal and private email server?” Continue>>>

May 8, 2015 12:47 PM

Ever since his early days on the police force in Chesapeake, Va., Kelvin Wright has been intrigued by the idea of using cameras to fight crime. As a traffic officer in the late 1980s, he was the first cop in the department to test them on car dashboards. Chesapeake police then experimented with body-worn cameras as long ago as the late 1990s, but the technology proved impractical. By 2009, Wright was the chief. He decided to equip 90 of Chesapeake’s officers with newer-model body cameras. At the time, such recording devices were in use only in a select handful of police departments around the country.

That is quickly changing. Sparked mostly by the riots following police killings last year in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. -- and, more recently, by the shooting death of an unarmed black man in North Charleston, S.C. -- there’s been a national surge of interest in outfitting officers with body-worn cameras. Just two years ago, TASER International, a leading vendor of the devices, only supplied cameras to Chesapeake and a few hundred other agencies. Now the company reports more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies use more than 30,000 of its cameras nationwide. One national expert recently told The Wall Street Journal he estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 police departments, out of about 18,000 nationwide, use body cameras. No state mandates body-worn devices yet, but according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 29 states had introduced various body camera bills as of March.

Many of the cities interested in equipping officers with body cameras have reached out to Chesapeake to see how the program has worked there. Since the unrest of Ferguson, Wright says his department has received on average a call a week about the cameras from other cities. The New York City Police Department was one of the callers. The District of Columbia Police Department sent a contingent down to Chesapeake last year to visit. Wright thinks it’s not a matter of if but when most police departments will deploy body-worn cameras of their own. “Across this country,” Wright says, “officers will wear these very much as they do their sidearm.” Continue>>>

May 8, 2015 12:42 PM

A state Supreme Court judge has ruled that the state needs to make public statistical information on the number of assault weapons registered in New York.

The April 30 ruling was disclosed today by the Shooters Committee on Public Education, a gun-rights group that sued last year after the state refused to release the details. State Police claimed the information was not public under a gun-control law passed in January 2013.

Paloma Capanna, a Rochester-area lawyer who represented the group, called the decision a major victory for transparency in government. Continue>>>

May 7, 2015 11:36 AM

This hasn’t been a terribly productive year for the South Carolina Legislature.

There has been as much talk about what might not get done this year as about what will get accomplished.

For example, a bill that would dedicate hundreds of millions of additional dollars to South Carolina’s crumbling, dilapidated roads and bridges — supposedly a top priority for legislators coming into 2015 — hit a snag in the state Senate, as a recent vote to give the bill special debate status failed to get the needed two-thirds majority. Continue>>>

May 7, 2015 11:34 AM

The FBI rightfully withheld documents about two terror suspects because they were exempt from disclosure, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Kenneth Dillon filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI in 2011, seeking records about the August 2011 detention and arrest of terrorism conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. Dillon later narrowed his request for records about Moussaoui referencing cropdusting or biological or chemical terrorism.

He also sought records about the detention of al-Qaida operative Abderraouf Jdey, the ruling states. Continue>>>

May 7, 2015 11:30 AM

The Justice Department’s latest summary of all agency Freedom of Information Act activity in fiscal 2014 shows a record number of requests.

 “Agency FOIA offices received a record high 714,231 requests while also facing several other challenges including reduced staffing, tough fiscal times, and a three-week government shutdown during which requests continued to come in when there was no staff available to process them,” Justice’s Office of Information Policy wrote in a report and compilation uploaded onto “Managing these challenges, the government overall was able to process 647,142 requests while continuing to maintain a high release rate of over 91 percent for the sixth year in a row. The government overall also improved its average processing times for simple and complex track requests.”

The increase of 9,837 requests over the previous year continued a four-year trend of setting a record for requests, Justice said. For the sixth consecutive year, the Homeland Security Department received the most requests, with 291,242, a 26 percent increase. The next highest numbers of requests went to the departments of Justice, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs. Continue>>>

May 7, 2015 11:27 AM

Florida lawmakers approved 13 new open-government exemptions and re-enacted seven existing exemptions during the annual legislative session that ended last week, according to the First Amendment Foundation, which tracks the issues.

The bills included exemptions (SB 200 and SB 7040) for:

- Email addresses held by county tax collectors and the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Continue>>>

May 7, 2015 11:21 AM

New regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation declare that details about crude oil rail shipments are exempt from public disclosure (Tri-City Herald).

This ends DOT’s existing regulations that required railroads to share with state officials, and the public, information about shipping large volumes of dangerous crude oil by rail. These disclosure requirements were put in place last year after a Bakken crude oil train-wreck in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Now, railroads will only have to share this information with emergency responders who will be mum. And the information will be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act as well as public records and state disclosure laws (SSI). Continue>>>

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