“Sick of Secrecy” Report: COVID-19 Exacerbates Agencies’ Predilection to Withhold Public Information

Secret policies, muzzled experts, delays, and records request mismanagement define the government’s pandemic response and spotlight the need for FOIA reform.

Hundreds of public records requests filed by open government advocacy organizations over the past year to shed light on federal agencies’ actions during the pandemic expose a concerning and recurring trend — almost universally, agencies persistently failed to respond to public requests in a timely fashion. According to Open The Government’s new report Sick of Secrecy: Challenges to Transparency in the COVID-19 Era, the trend predates the pandemic and underscores the need for significant Freedom of Information Act reform that offers stronger protection of the public’s right to information.

Solutions to the government’s pandemic response secrecy include a strong commitment by the Biden administration to improving transparency throughout the federal government, empowering truthtellers, and updating agencies’ policies and technology to facilitate remote access to the information requested. Some highlights from the report:

  • Agencies such as the State Department, Office of Legal Counsel, Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs and Border Protection, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and others blocked access to information, failing to honor expedited processing for coronavirus-related requests, even after granting the requests in the first place.
  • Others, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blatantly abused their administrative rights and inappropriately rejected standard FOIA requests, claiming requests were “too vague” or “too broad”.
  • Litigation has been the source of the most impactful release of information from the government in the last year for Open The Government and other advocacy organizations in its coalition, including American Oversight, Public Citizen, Union of Concerned Scientists, Project on Government Oversight, and National Security Archive.

“The report encapsulates the extent to which government agencies tasked with addressing the coronavirus outbreak keep the public from knowing the truth about the pandemic by brazenly ignoring, undermining, and rejecting hundreds of requests for records, even as COVID-19 upends millions of Americans’ lives,” said Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open The Government. “If left unchecked by Congress and the White House their actions will continue to hinder transparency that is vital for effective oversight and prevent the accountability that ensures our country is better prepared for health crises in the future.”

More information on Sick of Secrecy: Challenges to Transparency in the COVID-19 Era is available for download here

Ufuoma Otu
Communications Director
(202) 332-0251