Sunshine Week: Shining FOIA Light on Government Secrecy

Happy Sunshine Week - a week devoted to "the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why." Reports on transparency and accountability of federal agencies.

Happy Sunshine Week - a week devoted to "the public's right to know what its government is doing, and why." The best way to accomplish that is to shine a huge Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) light on the shady shroud of secrecy surrounding some government tactics and hold those officials accountable for their actions.

Although the Obama Administration initially called for transparency and accountability, those words didn't translate into drastically improved actions by federal agencies. According to the EFF, the current administration is "clinging to arguments the Bush Administration used to prevent the release of crucial information. This all suggests that maybe 'open government' shouldn't be controlled by the government."

In fact, despite other politicians' claims of wanting more transparency, the Associated Press surveyed all 50 states and discovered, "efforts to boost openness often are being thwarted by old patterns of secrecy." The survey found that there have been some recent improvements due to a "skeptical public demanding more information about how their tax money is being spent" during this economic crisis.

As ThreatLevel's David Kravets noted, "What’s more, there were 544,360 requests for information last year under the Freedom of Information Act to the 35 biggest federal agencies — 41,000 requests more than the year before. Yet the bureaucracy responded to 12,400 fewer requests than the prior year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press."

According to the National Security Archive, 49 of 90 federal agencies "made concrete changes in their FOIA procedure." Last year, only 13 of 90 federal agencies complied. When the U.S. Postal Service blatantly denied having knowledge of President Obama's call for openness, Tom Blanton, the National Security Archive's FOIA coordinator, suggested, "Perhaps the Postal Service lost that memo in the mail."

Despite the compliance improvement discovered by the Archive's 2011 Knight Open Government Survey, Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, said, "Freedom of information laws exist to help all of us get the information we need for this open society to function. Yet government at all levels seems to have a great deal of trouble obeying its own transparency laws."

Some agencies have made public disclosures via online publications, while other agencies do not even bother to respond to FOIA and the President's previous proclamation to ensure an open government. While the law requires a FOIA response in 20 business days, 12 federal agencies have "still-pending FOIA requests" that are more than six years old. There is a handy chart on National Security Archive to see the reported actions of federal agencies in response to the order for an "open government."

To celebrate Sunshine Week, the EFF published a list things that we can do to promote government accountability which range from how-to and filing a FOIA request, to becoming a Cooperating FOIA Reviewer for the EFF. Another suggestion includes asking Representatives to oppose the SHEILD Act which will amend the Espionage Act to make felons of us all — or at least anyone who writes about, comments upon, tweets about, or otherwise publishes information about Wikileaks or other classified info "concerning the human intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government."

It's either sunshine or it's secrecy. Let's cast some sunshine, continue to request government transparency, and chase away the shadows of government secrecy.

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