So much for what President Obama has called “the most transparent administration in history.”
News is breaking today about how the U.S. Navy accidentally sent a memo to D.C.-based NBC reporter Scott MacFarlane that outlined how it planned to delay and discourage his attempts to acquire public records under the Freedom of Information Act:
In the memo, the Navy discusses how to negotiate with MacFarlane and tell him the request would be a “fishing expedition.”
At one point, the memo states that obtaining the documents may be costly, which might encourage MacFarlane to “narrow the scope” of his request.
“Again, another ‘fishing expedition,’” the memo states. “[J]ust because they are media doesn’t mean the memos shed light on specific government activities.”
The story offers behind-the-scenes insight into a process that turns up entirely or significantly redacted responses to public-records requests. Though the Freedom of Information Act is very clear, far too often agencies delay long past deadline, only to release a fraction of the information required by law.
But access to public records are an essential part of American democracy, empowering journalists and citizens alike to hold their government accountable.
As I’ve delved more into public-records reporting lately, I’ve found Chris Horner’s new book, The Liberal War on Transparency¸ extraordinarily helpful.
Horner — whom Politico has called “the master of the FOIA” — has broken major stories through public-records searches, including how former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson was conducting official business under the e-mail alias of “Richard Windsor.”
Horner’s book zones in on the clash between the Obama administration’s promises of transparency, its failure to make good on that vow, and the political motivations underpinning that discrepancy. It also offers a how-to for records seekers — a useful resource for journalists and interested citizens alike.
Order it here.