The Freedom of Information Act is Back
Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies
By Barack Obama
President of the United States
January 21, 2009
Publisher’s note: This newspaper, like all investigative journalists, has utilized the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), begun under President Johnson and amended by Presidents Clinton and Bush, to obtain many government documents that have exposed official wrongdoing. In particular, journalist Bill Conroy’s reports on corruption in US law enforcement agencies along the US-Mexico border have made many such documents available to the public for the first time. At our Schools of Authentic Journalism in Mexico and Bolivia, journalist Jeremy Bigwood trained others in the vital tools of how to utilize FOIA.
January 21, 2009
But in recent years, US government agencies have often delayed, denied and otherwise stonewalled our requests under this law.
Today’s official memorandum signed by US President Barack Obama brings a long overdue and welcome sea change to our work and that of all investigative journalists. Concretely, it means that in the coming months and years, you, the reader, are going to gain access through the FOIA requests we will now be able to submit to uncover many hidden US government activites related to Latin America, the so-called “war on drugs,” official corruption in US agencies, and interventions in the affairs of other nations.
The ground, indeed, has been moved under our feet, and in the most positive way.
We publish the President’s memorandum today so that all journalists and citizens can have access to this landmark executive order.
MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES
SUBJECT: Freedom of Information Act
A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.
The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.
All agencies should 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. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.
The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.
I direct the Attorney General to issue new guidelines governing the FOIA to the heads of executive departments and agencies, reaffirming the commitment to accountability and transparency, and to publish such guidelines in the Federal Register. In doing so, the Attorney General should review FOIA reports produced by the agencies under Executive Order 13392 of December 14, 2005. I also direct the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to update guidance to the agencies to increase and improve information dissemination to the public, including through the use of new technologies, and to publish such guidance in the Federal Register.
This memorandum does not create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
The Director of the Office of Management and Budget is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.
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