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FOIA: Honored in the Breach!

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"I think the important thing is that there has been no training, specifically for FOIA litigators. There's no guidelines -- there isn't even discussion of when they should release something. Quite frankly, they're not serious about it."

If Hodes has found no change, and instead a stolid insistence on defending cases no matter what, others have seen the opposite -- an increased aggressiveness in defending cases.

Jason Aldrich, a staff attorney at Judicial Watch who worked on two lawsuits that were examined by TRAC to see if they were affected by the new policy (neither were), said that in 12 years of litigating FOIA-related cases, extending back to the Clinton administration, he has seen no signs that DOJ attorneys are less likely to defend a case.

"I'm not really seeing any additional openness or willingness to exercise discretion, if anything people are just hunkering down, especially anything that looks like it might be remotely political," he told TRAC.

The AP's review of annual Freedom of Information Act reports filed by 17 major agencies found that the administration's use of nearly every one of the law's nine exemptions to withhold information from the public increased during fiscal year 2009, which ended last October.

The agencies cited exemptions at least 466,872 times in budget year 2009, compared with 312,683 times the previous year, the review found. Over the same period, the number of information requests declined by about 11 percent, from 493,610 requests in fiscal 2008 to 444,924 in 2009. Agencies often cite more than one exemption when withholding part or all of the material sought in an open-records request.

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Proponents of "smaller, leaner government" contend that there are simply to many people involved in the FOIA process. But others contend that fewer hands would only make the delays longer.

It was back in 1966 that Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law, driven by the indefatigable Bill Moyers, his press secretary.

Unlike Johnson's much-publicized signing of the Civil Rights Bill, Wikipedia tells us that he had such mixed feelings about the FOIA legislation that he refused to hold any kind of ceremony that would attract the media's attention. His fear was that opening the government's files to the masses might result in the accidental or intentional revelation of national secrets.

Seven years later, Rosemary Woods, President Nixon's secretary, was reviewing a key Watergate tape, and erased 18.5 minutes of conversation. Wags in Washington, DC, bestowed on her a "virtual" award for Worst Open Government Performance. The "honor" became an annual capitol chuckle.

The winner in 2011 was -- wait for it -- the US Departmentof Justice.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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