President Obama, January 21, 2009: “The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent.”
President Obama promised to usher in a new era of government transparency and openness. But according to an analysis by the Associated Press, in 2016, the Obama administration spent $36.2 million tax dollars on legal fees ..defending its FOIA refusals in court.
The Justice Department led the way, spending $12 million on those legal battles, followed by the Department of Homeland Security, which spent $6.3 million, and the Pentagon, which racked up $4.8 million dollars.
John Dunbar: The amount of money that the federal government is spending to fight these cases is disappointing.
Some of that tax money was spent fighting FOIA requests from the investigative journalism nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, headed by Jon Dunbar.
John Dunbar: In the early days of the Obama administration, there was a lot of talk of being more transparent, more transparent than previous Administrations and being more free with information. So yeah, there was some hope that the FOIA process might smooth out a little more because it's been notoriously difficult for as long as it's been in existence.
Last June, President Obama signed into law the FOIA Improvement ACT passed by Congress. It’s supposed to speed up and simplify the process. Dunbar says it hasn’t made their job any easier.
John Dunbar: These were changes that were, uh, essentially in the margins that didn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference, at least on our end from where we-from what we could see.
He says it took months -- and finally a lawsuit - for his team to get data on billions of tax dollars in Medicare overpayments to insurance companies.
John Dunbar: it took a long time, many many months and many many hours on to the part of our attorney to get this data so that we could find out that this fraud was occurring.
Sometimes the material they do get is so heavily blocked out, it’s virtually useless.
John Dunbar: We’ll get a document where literally just massive blank spaces where there’s supposed to be information which we have FOIA’ed.For example, one high level Sandia official blank blank was responsible for blank. (laughs)
(Sharyl Attkisson:) “When they do provide a sensitive document they redact nearly everything using exemptions..”
Redacted documents, long delays and court battles become part of the job of accountability reporting. In 2015, along with representatives from the New York Times and others, I testified to Congress about egregious violations by federal agencies.
In 2013, The Defense Department finally responded to a FOIA request I’d made in 2003. Too late to be of use for the news story I was working on back then, ten years before. For some perspective, my daughter was eight years old when I made the FOIA request. By the time I got a response from the Pentagon, she was going off to college.
John Dunbar: We have gone to court 18 times since 2000, 8 against the Bush Administration, 8 against the Obama Administration, once against the Clinton, and we have already filed one against the Trump Administration.
And Dunbar worries that the track record of the past 3 administrations may not change under this one.
John Dunbar: I think we have a president now who considers the media to be the enemy of the people which doesn’t help much either, so I don’t have high hopes that we’re gonna have a very transparent Trump administration.