The Washington Post reported last week that “high-level officials” at the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Department of the Interior (“DOI”) have started to “keep closer tabs” on incoming Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) requests for records that may be embarrassing or politically damaging to the Trump Administration.  Whether by deliberately delaying responses or conducting pre-production review of responsive records, non-career officials have been accused of politicizing FOIA.

Politicizing FOIA is Not New

Although concern over the improper interference by political appointees in the administration of the FOIA is justified, the practice did not originate with President Trump.  For example, according to two DOI Inspector General reports—dated September 2015 and October 2010—political appointees at Interior have long been routinely made aware of “selected” FOIA requests, including those “currently in litigation” or concerning “high profile or sensitive matters.”  In some instances, requests (including those from news media requesters) were “considerably delayed . . . possibly due to political involvement.”  Moreover, the EPA Inspector General, in August 2015 and January 2011, reported that EPA regulations specifically permitted some political appointees—including the agency’s Chief FOIA Officer and the authorized disclosure official in the Administrator’s Office—to participate in approving requests and redacting records.

The Obama-era

The truth is that politicizing FOIA reached its zenith under the Obama Administration.  Despite a professed commitment to transparency, President Obama introduced the pernicious practice of “White House equities” and “sensitive review” procedures at various agencies, including the Department of Treasury, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the EPA, the State Department, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security.  As part of “sensitive review,” non-career political appointees direct career FOIA staff to consult with them whenever a FOIA request could elicit media attention or potentially embarrass the White House.  It is more than a bit ironic that the Washington Post—which previously described the Obama Administration as “one of the most secretive” ever because of its historic “stonewalling or rejecting” of FOIA requests—would now forget, or least fail to mention, this long, bipartisan history of presidents abusing transparency laws to their advantage.

Of course, none of this means that the Trump Administration is adhering to best practices.  It stands to reason that FOIA politicization, and a lack of overall commitment to transparency, continues.  For example, “White House equities” review persists.  In July 2017, the General Services Administration released to CoA Institute a previously-secret White House memo detailing those procedures, thus suggesting they are still in place.  Although not directly related to the FOIA, the White House also appears to have interfered with how agencies respond to congressional oversight requests.  And, most recently, CoA Institute has investigated the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s practice of identifying “high visibility” FOIA requests, as well as its tracking of requests concerning the Trump “transition.”

The current Administration is not alone in politicizing FOIA.  Where political appointees are interfering with the disclosure of records, they are continuing a long tradition of obstructing the public’s right to access government information.  To turn the issue into a partisan one—of Trump versus the EPA #Resistance, of #DrainTheSwamp versus the “main stream” media—obscures the underlying problem and makes it more difficult to reach consensus on how to fix it.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute.