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
Letters are welcome and should be addressed to
reason 1747 Connecticut Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20009 fax: 202-315-3623 firstname.lastname@example.org
“If a qualified and sorta mainstream LP presidential candidate was polling at 6 percent in mid-September, why did he finish at 1.0 percent less than two months later? What happened to the Super-PAC money? Ron Paul was effectively out of the Republican race by April, so there was plenty of time to line up support.”
—reason.com commenter “CE” in response to “Can the Libertarian Party Get 1 Percent of the Vote?” (December)
“The other thing fantasy football freed us from was the tyranny of Monday Night Football. It used to be that if your hometown team wasn’t playing on Monday night, then Monday night football didn’t really matter to you. When you’re in a fantasy league, the chances of someone playing on Monday night either being on your fantasy team or on your opponent’s fantasy team are very high. As a fantasy player, you end up watching and being interested in games you wouldn’t care about otherwise.”
—reason.com commenter “Ken Shultz” in response to “How to Have a Good Idea” (December)
“Cleveland as New York? WTF? I suppose next you’ll be telling me that aircraft carriers can’t fly.”
—reason.com commenter “Tim” in response to “Superhero Subsidies” (December)