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Intelligence advice for next president: Rocky road ahead

FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2014, file photo, the White House is photographed from Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The National Intelligence Council’s new report on global trends forecasts a slowing global economy dragged down by sluggish growth in China, and political volatility across the world spurred by disillusionment with the status quo. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Here’s something else to think about as we continue to observe Sunshine Week, the annual effort to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

One of the most important tools to ensure open government is the Freedom of Information Act. For at least a decade now, Congress has been working to reform the act to give members of the public better access to information possessed by the federal government.

That’s why we were intrigued to note a news story last week by Vice News, which revealed some of the reasons why previous reform efforts never quite got over the hump: It turns out that the White House itself has aggressively worked behind the scenes to stop the reforms.

The documents Vice News used for its story were obtained by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports journalism in the public interest. How did the foundation get the documents? You guessed it: through a request made under the Freedom of Information Act.

The saddest part is that this really isn’t that surprising: Despite a promise from President Barack Obama that his administration would be the most transparent in history, it’s been clear almost from the beginning that the president never intended this to be the case.

Still, this particular case rankles.

On his first day in office in 2009, Vice News reported, Obama signed a memorandum instructing all government agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.”

A few years later, in 2014, Congress, in a burst of crazy optimism, considered a bill called the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014. The bill would have codified Obama’s memo into law. The bill enjoyed widespread and bipartisan support in Congress.

But Obama’s Department of Justice opposed the bill, claiming it would increase the Freedom of Information Act backlog, increase costs and cause unforeseen problems with requests. And the Department of Justice said it would oppose any effort to codify Obama’s 2009 memo into law, because, you know, that would have given the memo some real legal bite.

The bill died quietly in the House in December 2014, Vice News reported, after John Boehner, then the speaker of the House, didn’t bring up the final version for a vote.

Despite all this, the issue isn’t dead: A pair of Freedom of Information Act reform bills are pending in Congress. The House passed its version earlier this year. According to The Hill newsletter, the Senate’s version could move to the Senate floor this week. The White House has not made any comment on either measure other to say that it would “take a close look at this legislation.”

Based on its previous actions, though, we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that administration officials were again busily working behind the scenes to scuttle the legislation — and that we’ll learn about these latest efforts years later, after an enterprising journalist files a Freedom of Information Act request and waits the year or so necessary to get a response.

But it would be appropriate for Congress to pass its Freedom of Information bills during Sunshine Week, and send a measure to President Obama. Obama might well veto it, which would at least give him a chance to explain to the American people why his administration has seen fit to betray his promise of a transparent and open federal government. (mm)

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