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Policy and News Update for June 14, 2011

News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Help Make Aid Transparent
II. 2010 Govt-wide FOIA Summary Released
III. Senate Passes Faster FOIA: How Would You Improve FOIA?
IV. Explore Recent Whistleblower Prosecutions
V. Fight for Narrow Info Disclosure Provisions in Defense Authorization Bill Moves to the Senate

  
Sunlight Leads Call for Senate Campaign Transparency

  The Sunlight Foundation continues to lead the campaign against the arcane Senate practice of filing paper-based campaign finance reports. Paper filings dramatically slow down the disclosure of who is providing the campaign with funds, meaning donors can bundle contributions in the final, critical weeks of a campaign - providing the funds necessary for last minute negative attack ads or push polls - with absolute anonymity until well after the race has been decided. OpenTheGovernment.org and several of our coalition partners recently signed-on to an open letter to the Senate organized by Sunlight urging all Senators to voluntarily e-file their campaign finance reports.
  
 EPIC Files FOIA Suit for Details on Mobile Body Scanners

   The Electronic Information Privacy Center (EPIC) recently filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for unlawfully withholding documents concerning mobile body scanners. The mobile scanners can be used to monitor crowds, peering under clothes and inside bags. EPIC's suit asks a federal court to order disclosure of nearly 1,000 pages of additional records detailing the controversial program - records the agency has refused to make public. Learn more about the suit and EPIC's efforts against the scanners HERE.
 
 OMB Watch and Sunlight Organize to Restore Transparency Funding

  OMB Watch and Sunlight Foundation are coordinating an effort to convince Congress to replace funding for the Electronic Government Fund, a pot of money the Administration uses to support a number of important transparency initiatives like USASpending.gov and Data.gov. The fund was slashed by 75% in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, from $34 million, to $8 million. Because of the cuts, needed upgrades and improvements in data quality will be delayed or canceled. On June 13 organizations sent a letter to House Appropriators signed by OpenTheGovernment.org and several of our coalition partners urging Congress to restore funding in FY 2012.
 
I. Help Make Aid Transparent
 OpenTheGovernment.org is joining with Publish What You Fund and more than fifty civil society groups from twenty countries to call on governments and other donors to publish more and better information about the aid they give. Greater transparency will increase aid's effectiveness, reduce waste and corruption, and help make sure that citizens are able to hold their governments to account.
2011 is a critical moment. Governments have promised to be more transparent and at a big international meeting at the end of this year we have the chance to hold them to account. A public push for greater transparency now will make a huge difference. Governments are reviewing their commitments and if they feel public pressure they will redouble efforts to keep their promises.
As citizens we have a right to know how aid money is being spent. Visit our website or www.makeaidtransparent.org to learn more and to sign the petition calling on governments to make their aid transparent now.
 
II. 2010 Govt-wide FOIA Summary Released
Last week the Office of Information Policy (OIP), the component of the Department of Justice (DOJ) charged with providing agencies with guidance on FOIA, released its Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010. The summary, which is based on reports of key FOIA processing statistics each agency submits to OIP, is intended to give policymakers and the public with a snapshot of how well or not-well the government is meeting its obligations to answer requests for information. Notably, the FY 2010 report includes three years' worth of data, whereas past summaries only compared the most current numbers to the previous years' statistics. Also, data in the FY2010 report has a much higher degree of granularity; for example, processing costs are split into processing expenses, litigation-related expenses, and amount recouped through FOIA fees whereas past reposts listed only the aggregate sum of all FOIA processing costs.
 
OIP credits the improvements to the launch of FOIA.gov, an interactive site intended to increase the public's knowledge about FOIA and the process the federal government to process these requests. The site includes a dashboard feature that allows users to download and compare agencies' FOIA statistics. As we recently discussed, however, incomplete data and technical glitches give users an incomplete and misleading picture of agency performance. DOJ and OIP should be commended for putting the site up, but FOIA.gov will never be as useful a tool as it should be until they get it right.
 
III. Senate Passes Faster FOIA: How Would You Improve FOIA?
On May 26 the Senate unanimously approved S. 627, the Faster FOIA Act of 2011, a bill championed by Senators Leahy (D-VT) and Cornyn (R-TX) that would create a commission to study several problematic issues related to the federal government's processing of public requests for information and make recommendations for reducing delays and limiting the use of exemptions to withhold information. To move the bill closer to becoming law, the House of Representatives can now either take up the Senate-passed bill or act on a similar bill introduced by Representative Sherman (D-CA) earlier this year, HR 1564.

News of the bill's passage prompted the staff at the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS)-- a body created by the OPEN Government Act of 2007 to act as a mediator between the government and individuals in FOIA disputes and to make recommendations for improving FOIA policy -- to ask what people think is the future of FOIA. We recently shared our thoughts on how to make proactive disclosures work. We urge you to read OGIS' blog post and share your own thoughts on possible proposals.

 

IV. Explore Recent Whistleblower Prosecutions
OpenTheGovernment.org welcomes the news that as a result of a recent plea bargain national security whistleblower Thomas Drake, who called attention to mismanagement in the National Security Agency (NSA) and was originally indicted on charges of espionage, will likely not have to spend any time in jail. The case was considered by many to be a bellwether case for the future of the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers. Mr. Drake is only one of five prosecutions and investigations pursued by the past two presidential administrations for disclosures to the news media. We have put together an interactive display of these five cases. This interactive collage acts as a timeline and overview of the leak prosecutions pursued by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Both pictures and text can be selected as links to general descriptions, original documents, news clippings, and work done by our partner organizations. To navigate the collage, click and drag the bar at the bottom of the collage, or simply sweep the mouse to the desired direction.
  
V. Fight for Narrow Info Disclosure Provisions in Defense Authorization Bill Moves to the Senate
A little over a month ago, we noted that the version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 introduced in the House of Representatives, HR 1540, included two provisions exempting new types of information from disclosure under FOIA. The provisions, which deal with critical infrastructure information and flight information, appeared to be part of the Department of Defense's (DOD) response to the Supreme Court's decision in Milner vs. Department of the Navy that agencies were using FOIA's exemption 2 in an overly broad fashion to withhold all "predominantly internal" materials. Thanks in large part to an effort led by the Project On Government Oversight - POGO and Public Citizen, an amendment by Representative Maloney (D-NY) to significantly narrow the infrastructure exemption was accepted by the House; efforts to similarly narrow the provision dealing with flight information were not successful. Unfortunately, both provisions appear as introduced in the House in the version of the bill introduced in the Senate, S 981. We will continue to work with our partners to protect the public's right to information from unnecessary and over-broad exemptions.
 
 

The Classified Section

Check out our new blog, The Classified Section, for analysis of national security secrecy.

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