Open government groups express support FOIA reform, and concern over carve-outs for the intelligence community

WASHINGTON, January 15, 2016 – Today, more than 40 organizations committed to government openness and accountability sent a letter to the leadership of the House of Representatives expressing our support for reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). At the same time, the letter raises concerns about last-minute changes to the bill to exempt the Intelligence Community from certain provisions of the FOIA amendments.

On Monday, January 11, the House passed on a voice vote the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653) – a bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to promote greater government transparency and accountability. The bill includes reforms that will have notable tangible impact. Importantly, the bill codifies the current Administration’s directive on the presumption of openness – requiring agencies to disclose information unless there is a foreseeable harm in its release or legal requirement to withhold the information. Additionally, the bill narrows the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5, which has broadly expanded and cited to justify withholding important public interest information, including Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos with key information on Bush-era torture program, targeted killing programs, and expansive NSA communications surveillance programs. Importantly, the bill also provides the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) with the ability to communicate directly with Congress and issue advisory opinions in mediation.

The letter emphasizes the support among the openness community for these provisions and others in H.R. 653. However, it also states our objection to the last-minute inclusion of specific provisions to the bill, added at the behest of members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. The changes include new language that would exempt the Intelligence Community from certain provisions of the FOIA amendments. This includes language that states that currently-protected information relating to “sources and methods” would not be subject to disclosure under any of the amendments in the bill, and another that would exempt the Intelligence Community from the reforms to the consultation process that the bill would put into place. Exempting the Intelligence Community agencies, which most need the reforms, from the consultation process weakens the reform intended by the Committee. 

“The undersigned organizations support the bicameral, bipartisan movement toward reforming the FOIA” the letter reads. “Congress must continue to act to ensure before the end of this Administration that FOIA stays current with people’s need to access government information and resilient in the face of attempts to subvert that access.”

Read the letter here.

Submitted by jfranzblau on 01/15/2016