Oversight panel starts probe into FOIA screening at Homeland Security
posted at 11:05 am on January 17, 2011 by Ed Morrissey
Republicans have started to make good on their promises to conduct stringent oversight of the Obama administration right from the start. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has requested information from the Department of Homeland Security over a reported practice of investigating the politics of those seeking government records through Freedom of Information Act requests:
A House committee has asked the Homeland Security Department to provide documents about an agency policy that required political appointees to review many Freedom of InformationAct requests, according to a letter obtained Sunday by The Associated Press.
The letter to Homeland Security was sent late Friday by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It represents an early move by House Republicans who have vowed to launch numerous probes of President Barack Obama’s administration, ranging from its implementation of the new health care law to rules curbing air pollution to spending in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Associated Press reported in July that for at least a year, Homeland Security had sidetracked hundreds of requests for federal records to top political advisers to the department’s secretary, Janet Napolitano. The political appointees wanted information about those requesting the materials, and in some cases the release of documents considered politically sensitive was delayed, according to numerous e-mails that were obtained by the AP.
The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to ensure the quick public release of requested government documents without political consideration. Obama has said his administration would emphasize openness in providing requested federal records.
I wrote about it at the time, although the issue got lost a bit in the midterms. This could do serious damage to the White House pretense of openness, especially since FOIA itself was one of the premiere tools to ensure open government. It allows citizens and the media to force government to either release information or come up with a good reason not to do so, eventually in front of a judge if pressed hard enough. FOIA requests help shine sunlight on government operations and impose accountability, even when Congress is not inclined to do so.
That’s why DHS treated FOIA requests with such scrutiny. The Obama administration had a pliant, even supine Congress in the first two years, and that gave them plenty of room to act without any check on their authority. The people most interested in FOIA requests were probably those who mistrusted the Obama administration’s exercise of power, but apparently DHS wanted to be sure that was the case. Vetting requests based on political considerations would not just violate the letter of the law, but it would also be a big indicator of attempting to hide from sunlight. A confirmation of this process would put Obama, or at least Janet Napolitano, on par with Richard Nixon in that sense.
DHS denies that they vetted requests for political leanings, but only for “grammatical and other errors” and to alert high-ranking DHS officials of potential controversies. Issa’s probe will hopefully settle the issue. It’s long past time that Congress exercise its oversight responsibilities, and probing an alleged attack on openness in government is an excellent place to start.