Chief FOIA Officer Joyce Barr acknowledged in a testimony to Congress on Wednesday that the backlog of over 16,000 FOIA requests is “unacceptable.” Well, isn’t that special! Perhaps her cavalier mention of such an outrageous dereliction of duty stems from residing in the legally protected bubble that is the Freedom of Information Act.
There is a virtual spider’s web of legal acrobatics and self-protecting clauses in FOIA law. There is exception after exception and loophole after loophole that essentially boils down to this: if we really don’t want you to see something, you ain’t gon’ see it. They’ll point you to one of the nine exemptions granted or they’ll charge you in exorbitance (Oh yes, there are fees for requesting information you already own!) or they’ll actually fork over the information after it has been redacted to high heaven.
Now, who decides what is and isn’t redacted? Is it the tax payer? Of course it isn’t.
And of course when you object to one excuse, they point to the next, then the next, and then the next. Are you bankrupt yet? You mean your legal fees aren’t subsidized by the tax payers? Sorry. We are quite literally paying them to withhold our information from us. And then when we object to their lawlessness, we have to pay for their legal fees in addition to our own! Alas, just what the Founders intended!
The truth is that there is no Constitutional need for FOIA laws in the first place. Public information is owned by the public. End of story. Thanks for coming out. I’ll be here all week. As is the general rule with most federal acts and agencies, one simply has to understand that their actual purpose and function is typically the exact opposite of their stated purpose and function. And the Freedom of Information Act has functioned in practice as a big skirt for the children that run our government to hide behind. Freedom from Information Act would be more apt. However noble the intentions behind the law (Of which I am skeptical; sue me.), we know how the path to hell is paved.
But let’s cede that ground for now on account of not confusing our intellectually deficient opponents. The very least that we can do for the time being is to work within the basic framework of the existing FOIA laws. Now despite Bush (middle one) and Obama’s devious expansions of FOIA exemptions, some journalists and watchdog groups have done excellent work informing the public thanks to rightfully fulfilled FOIA requests. But they had to fight for it.
For those of you who haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading Sharyl Attkisson’s book Stonewalled. In it she chronicles the frustrations of a dogged journalist dealing with the practical implications of FOIA chicanery. The ethical gymnastics they perform to avoid accountability is no surprise to anyone plugged in, but if more people were keenly aware of what she and other journalists are subjected to regularly just for requesting access to public information, we might just make enough commotion to wake the snakes in Congress from their hibernation. Incidentally, Attkisson recently testified before Congress and advocated for criminal charges as a remedy to FOIA obfuscation. In response, I had a beer to her good health.
In order for FOIA laws to be implemented properly, there must be major reforms to be sure, but even more immediately than that, there must be reform of management. This is so simple and obvious. Effective management would see new requests answered in a timely manner and the backlog steadfastly chipped away. Any private enterprise with as dismal a record of inefficiency and outright noncompliance would have their windows shuttered six ways to Sunday. Enough of this silliness.
Now, the argument (excuse) from the State is that they are backlogged and inefficient due to lack of human resources and limited funds. Bull. The time and money spent obstructing and redacting and otherwise burying tax payer owned information is what causes such an obscene backlog. When bad behavior is rewarded the result is always worse behavior, so throwing more money and future pension receivers at the problem will not make it go away. FOIA’s must be freed.