I enjoyed “Transparently Disappointing,” Mike Riggs’ December 2012 article about the Obama administration’s poor record on transparency. Based on several thousand Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over about 30 years, I have a few comments.
Responsiveness to FOIA requests is often a function of an agency’s attitude toward disclosure, independent of administration. In the 20 years and several administrations since its existence was acknowledged, for instance, the National Reconnaissance Office has consistently been among the best organizations with regard to FOIA. During that same time period, the CIA and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency have been among the worst.
One should not discount laziness, incompetence, and ignorance as factors in poor FOIA performance. I recently noticed that the September 1961 intelligence estimate on Soviet strategic forces that the CIA posted on its website as part of its missile gap collection was more heavily redacted than the one released in 1995, when details of the CORONA reconnaissance system were declassified. Indeed, the new version removes all references to satellite photography even though those details have been declassified since 1995.
The only way I see to get disclosure-resistant agencies to change their ways is to have inspectors general committed to FOIA, with enough staff and sufficient authority to make life miserable for those who seek to defeat its use. General policy directives, even from a president truly committed to disclosure, won’t work because agencies can always abuse exemptions if left unchecked.
Senior Fellow, National Security Archive at George Washington University
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