In a move that went little noticed in 2009, the White House quietly amended portions of the Freedom of Information Act, making it more difficult for Americans to request public documents for review.
The FOIA change came in an April 15, 2009, memo from then-White House Counsel Greg Craig, according to the Washington Examiner, citing a new report from Washington-based watchdog group Cause of Action.
In the memo, Craig instructed the executive branch to let Obama administration officials review all documents sought under FOIA requests to determine if said documents involved “White House equities.”
However, nowhere in the FOIA does it say that White House officials can withhold certain documents for further review, meaning that the Obama administration effectively altered the law to justify burying public documents, the Washington Examiner notes.
The Craig “equities” exception is remarkably broad, covering everything from congressional committee requests, to GAO requests, to judicial subpoenas.
The memo noted that the exception "applies to all documents and records, whether in oral, paper, or electronic form, that relate to communications to and from the White House, including preparations for such communications."
Under normal FOIA guidelines, government agencies are required to respond to requests within 20 days. But the White House “equities” exemption had made that nearly impossible in at least a few cases.
Take, for example, a case where an L.A. Times reporter requested that the Department of the Interior provide "communications between the White House and high-ranking Interior officials on various politically sensitive topics.”
That request was delayed by nearly two years.
“Cause of Action is still waiting for documents from 16 federal agencies, with the Department of Treasury having the longest pending request of 202 business days,” the watchdog group’s report said.
"The Department of Energy is a close second at 169 business days. The requests to the Department of Defense and Department of Health and Human Services have been pending for 138 business days," the report added.
Although the Craig memo is from 2009, it has only recently come to light thanks to Cause of Action's report.
The group, which monitors government transparency issues, argues that the White House’s tampering of FOIA is a major deal.
"FOIA is designed to inform the public on government behavior; White House equities allow the government to withhold information from the media, and therefore the public, by having media requests forwarded for review. This not only politicizes federal agencies, it impairs fundamental First Amendment liberties," Cause of Action said in its report.
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