BROOKE GLADSTONE: Transparency advocates scored a big win in Washington on Thursday, when President Obama signed into law the FOIA Improvement Act. It could very possibly make the Freedom of Information Act work more like it’s supposed to. Since its birth on July 4th, 1966, FOIA requests have soared and wait times for documents can last literally years. Before Bob went on assignment, he spoke about the imminent changes to FOIA user and watcher, Jason Leopold.
BOB GARFIELD: You’re usually a dependable FIOA curmudgeon, filled with frustration and sometimes rage at how the government thwarts your reporting, despite the 50-year-old FOIA law. But do I detect that you have a certain spring in your step?
JASON LEOPOLD: Indeed, I – I’m, I’m smiling. You know, the bottom line is this: The FOIA Improvement Act will make it easier for the public, for journalists, for historians to gain access to information.
BOB GARFIELD: In what specific ways?
JASON LEOPOLD: It codifies into law the memorandum that President Obama signed on his first day in office, instructing all government agencies to act with a presumption of openness. When in doubt, release the records. There will be a centralized web portal where requesters can file the request online and track the request. So it makes it much more efficient. Another really, really important change is a change to an exemption in FOIA that pertains to the deliberative process, internal communications that go back and forth between various government agencies. It’s been the most used and abused exemption. So part of that exemption that deals specifically with internal deliberations, there's a sunset provision that is lifted after 25 years. So we can go back now to say 1991 and start requesting some documents from the Justice Department, from the Department of Defense, looking at how policy related to the first Iraq war, how that evolved, what was discussed there. I mean, this is a boon for historians.
This is a big win for the President, who did come into office promising a new era of transparency and open government.
BOB GARFIELD: What’s a little odd is the intervening almost eight years. It was the President's opening salvo in the Oval Office, but his agencies, notably the Justice Department, have done everything they can to stymie this legislation and have a FOIA fulfillment record that is pretty horrendous. It's kind of like Obama administration multiple personality disorder.
JASON LEOPOLD: [LAUGHS] It’s true. There’s an office within the Justice Department that’s supposed to be the FOIA cop, if you will, ensuring that all the other government agencies are abiding by these guidelines. They've done a terrible job. What the FOIA Improvement Act will actually do now, however, is strengthen the Office of Government Information Services. Now, that is an office where the FOIA ombudsman is located. And the FOIA ombudsman really did not have any real powers before this legislation was passed. Now, however, the ombudsman, who is nonpartisan, will ensure that all other government agencies are complying with the law.
BOB GARFIELD: One place we still really can't get any satisfaction is the legislative branch. In fact, in its statement supporting the legislation, the White House took a shot at Congress for continuing, 50 years into the history of FOIA, to exempt itself from requests about its own business.
JASON LEOPOLD: We’ll never see Congress subject to FOIA. I will say that it would have been amazing if the law did apply to Congress, particularly in this presidential election cycle. Could you imagine the records that we would have been able to obtain and take a look at, with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, even Senator Hillary Clinton. But it's probably because of what takes place behind the scenes that Congress said, not us.
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BOB GARFIELD: Jason, thank you very much.
JASON LEOPOLD: My pleasure. Thanks again for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Jason Leopold is senior investigative reporter for VICE News.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, more about transparency but not in the body politic, just in the body. This is On the Media.