BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. This week, President Obama revealed that we are not alone in feeling that this election season is – unsettling.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The number-one question I am getting as I travel around the world or talk to world leaders right now is, “What is happening in America - about our politics?”
BOB GARFIELD: And he proposed that some of the disarray could be laid at the feet of the media.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I think the electorate would be better served if we spent less time focused on the he said/she said back-and-forth of our politics.
BOB GARFIELD: That, he declared, is not the fundamental purpose of journalism.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question and to dig deeper.
BOB GARFIELD: Especially in times like these, when so much is at stake.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Because a well-informed electorate depends - on you. And our democracy depends on a well-informed electorate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Beautiful words, Mr. President, but words should not be confused with actions. Let's remember that this is the president who has been especially tough on legitimate whistleblowers and whose White House media machine routinely limits access to the press, and that this is the president who often asserts that:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: This is the most transparent administration in history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: While continually battening down the hatches.
Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: This is a pattern of stonewalling, and this administration, the Obama administration, more than 550,000 times has denied requests for Americans to get information from their government.
BOB GARFIELD: A recent Associated Press analysis found that this White House has set a new record for failing to meet Freedom of Information Act requests, this despite a 2009 presidential memorandum dating to Obama's first day in office instructing all government agencies to, quote, “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. What’s more, reporter Jason Leopold of VICE has just documented that the administration has stymied the efforts of Congress to strengthen FOIA. Jason, welcome to OTM.
JASON LEOPOLD: Great to be here, thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: First, 30 seconds or less, primer on FOIA.
JASON LEOPOLD: FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act. It’s a law that is going to be a half-century old this summer, and it allows anyone, anywhere in the world, to petition the US federal government, federal government agencies for its documents.
BOB GARFIELD: And the President issued the aforementioned memo that says we are going to invigorate FOIA. But, as you’ve reported, not so much.
JASON LEOPOLD: [LAUGHS] I know, not – not even close. This all looked great on paper. Obama signed this presidential memorandum. A couple of months later Attorney General Eric Holder issued a set of guidelines instructing government agencies how to carry out that edict. And it’s kind of been downhill from there, despite the fact that the administration continues to claim that it is the most transparent.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, the proof is in the pudding. One bit of proof is that the George W. Bush administration was far more [LAUGHS] forthcoming in FOIA requests. And then there is the White House's efforts, which you have recently written about, to stifle legislation that would reform FOIA and make it easier for the public to use.
JASON LEOPOLD: This bill was the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014. This was a bipartisan effort to codify into law President Obama's memorandum. This bill would have greatly improved journalists’ access to government records, the public's access. Unfortunately, it was never voted upon. We heard rumblings that there was an effort by the Justice Department, acting on behalf of the administration, to kill it.
We heard that, you know, The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Trade Commission were also involved in efforts to kill this because they were worried about the fact that it would force the disclosure of certain documents that would reveal their conversations with banks and other corporate entities. But all we had were rumors. It wasn’t until recently that we were able to discover, in fact, that the administration strongly opposed every effort to reform the Freedom of Information Act.
BOB GARFIELD: You were able to find out that the Justice Department and the SEC and the Federal Trade Commission all were trying to stifle [LAUGHS] this legislation by what means?
JASON LEOPOLD: [LAUGHS] Through the Freedom of Information Act. I filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests when the legislation died. And the Freedom of the Press Foundation actually sued the Justice Department under FOIA to pry loose this smoking gun memorandum. And then I was able to get thousands of pages of records from the SEC and the FTC that showed how they were working collectively to kill the Freedom of Information Act reform.
BOB GARFIELD: If you accept the notion that the president is not fundamentally antidemocratic, how do you account for his apparent hypocrisy on the issue of the transparency that he's constantly talking about?
JASON LEOPOLD: That's a great question, and it's incredibly difficult because this is not new. Youi know, it was only a few months after President Obama signed this memorandum that they already started to work against being transparent. That happened in the case of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union was trying to get photographs of detainees and the treatment of detainees who were held in the custody of the US military.
The Obama ministration said that they would release this but then there was this enormous backlash, and the administration worked with Congress to actually change FOIA, to allow the Secretary of Defense to sign a waiver saying any release of photographs or anything else pertaining to the treatment of detainees would be a national security risk. So right out of the gate they were working against their own promises of transparency.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first is that the president believes, out of principle, that the government can't function properly if information from the government flows too freely. The other possibility is that he’s got something to hide.
JASON LEOPOLD: I would say that it really depends on the type of information. Much of the documents that I tried to access have to do with national security, the CIA’s targeted killing program, its torture program, FBI surveillance, documents that the agencies go out of their way to protect. I should say also that I filed FOIAs to find out how the government is actually handling my FOIAs.
And I’ve seen how the [LAUGHS] FOIA requests are politicized, that it goes up to the top official to approve whether or not, you know, records can be released.
BOB GARFIELD: And you, of course, have FOIA’d yourself. What did you find?
JASON LEOPOLD: This was stunning to me. Many years ago I had filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI to gain access to documents about the brother of a high-valued detainee who lived in Florida. He had signed over a privacy waiver essentially saying that he would grant the government agencies permission to turn over anything that had on him to me.
One day I received a telephone call from his wife and she said to me, an FBI Special Agent is here. They're asking questions about your FOIA. I, I was outraged. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI for everything that they had on me on this particular day, in which the FBI Special Agent was asking questions about me. A few months later I received some documents and, sure enough, the FBI tasked a Special Agent to go out and interrogate my source about my [LAUGHS] Freedom of Information Act request. I’ve received other documents from the Department of Justice in which they sort of make fun of me and say that I'm a member of a FOIA posse. You have one attorney saying, oh, that should be his band name.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Jason, I have one further thing to say to you.
JASON LEOPOLD: And that is?
BOB GARFIELD: FOIA Posse is a pretty great band name.
Jason, thank you very much.
JASON LEOPOLD: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason Leopold is an investigative reporter for VICE News.