Improving the FOIA Reform Bill, HR 1211 – April 30, 2013 Newsletter

In This Issue:
News from Coalition Partners & Others
I. Improving the FOIA Reform Bill, HR 1211
II. Groups Carry on Fight Against Secret Law

News from Coalition Partners & Others

Truth-Telling Celebrated at the Ridenhour Prizes

The Ridenhour Prizes, created in the name of investigative journalist Ron Ridenhour, honored individuals at a ceremony hosted by OTG partners and openness colleagues. The honorees were documentary filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering for The Invisible War, journalist Jose Antonio Vargas for truth-telling, Seth Rosenfeld for the book Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, and James Hansen, for courage in his climate change activism.

Openness Groups Call for Classification Reform Leadership

Thirty groups, including, joined the Brennan Center for Justice in a letter calling for the White House to take the lead in security classification reform. The openness organizations called for the prompt establishment of a steering committee including White House Leadership to address overclassification. The creation of White House-led Security Classification Reform Steering Committee was recommended by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), to manage the implementation of the reforms required to transform current classification and declassification guidance and practice.

Calls for Transparency for Presidential Library Fundraising

As the George W. Bush Presidential library opened last week, groups dedicated to transparency called for light to be shone on the private fundraising done to create such libraries. Twenty-four groups joined the Sunlight Foundation in support of the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act (HR 1133), a bill to require public quarterly reports of contributions above a certain threshold made toward the creation of presidential libraries.

I. Improving the FOIA Reform Bill, HR 1211

As many of you may know, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently passed a bill authored by the Committee's Chair and Ranking Member, Representative Darrell Issa and Representative Elijah Cummings, to improve the federal government's system of processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The bill, HR 1211, makes some important changes that would strengthen the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) by giving the office the authority to report directly to Congress and to by-pass review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Long-time readers may remember how OMB review delayed OGIS' first set of recommendations from reaching Congress for more than one year. The bill would also ensure that OGIS has timely access to agencies' FOIA reports and gives OGIS more access to Chief FOIA Officers by creating a Chief FOIA Officers Council. Other notable provisions include: a requirement that agencies update their FOIA regulations (a recent audit by the National Security Archive found that many agencies have not updated their regulations to reflect the Administration's pro-disclosure FOIA policy or even the changes made to the law by Congress in 2007); and a pilot project of the FOIAonline system, a shared-service model that makes it easier for the public to make and track FOIA requests (and which, among other benefits, could save the government millions of dollars).

Since the release of the bill, has been working with many of our partners and other allies to identify provisions in the bill that are particularly good, and to identify other changes to the law that would make it easier for the public to use FOIA to get government information. Recently, we shared with the Committee staff our top recommendations for amending the bill to further strengthen it before it is taken to the House floor.

While the Committee's quick passage of HR 1211 is a good sign for the possibility of passing FOIA reform legislation during the 113th Congress, the bill has a long way to go before it is signed into law. It still needs to go to the House floor for a vote, and no companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate yet. We look forward to continuing to work with our allies and Congressional champions of the public's right to know to pass as strong a bill as possible.

II. Groups Carry on Fight Against Secret Law and several of our partners recently joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) on an amicus brief in support of The New York Times' suit challenging the government's decision to deny access to Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel(OLC) memos about the Administration's targeted killing program. The OLC opinion at issue is one example of the government's decision to deny the public access to authoritative legal opinions, an issue commonly referred to as secret law (see here for another altogether too recent example). The public needs to have a clear understanding of the how the Administration interprets our nation's laws, and what actions they can take as a result of those interpretations. Moreover, as the amicus brief argues, past publication of OLC opinions has promoted public discourse, fostered government oversight, and led to well-informed policy decisions.

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