In 2010, the Associated Press (AP) uncovered that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was blatantly politicizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process by having senior political appointees review requests.  Additionally, it was revealed that documents implicating “White House equities” had been sent by DHS to the White House Counsel’s Office for review, but what are White House equities? And who is defining the term?

In subsequent testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Mary Ellen Callahan, Chief Privacy Officer for DHS, was asked about the meaning of White House equities by Rep. Jason Chaffetz:

Mr. Chaffetz. Let me read another paragraph. “Two exceptions required White House review, request to see  documents about spending under the $862 billion stimulus law, and the calendars for cabinet members, those required White House review,” is that correct?

Ms. Callahan. The calendars–anything that has White House equities would require White House review. That is—-

Mr. Chaffetz. What is a White House equity? What does that mean?

Ms. Callahan. In the circumstances with the Secretary’s calendar to the extent that she was in the White House, or that was a–disclosing some sort of element. This is a typical process of referring FOIA requests to different departments. It may be their underlying records. That is a standard process throughout the—-

Mr. Chaffetz. The other part of that is under the $862 billion stimulus; is that correct? Is that part of the White House equity? It says “Two exceptions required White House review. Request to see documents about spending under the $862 billion stimulus law,” is that correct?

Ms. Callahan. That is correct.

Mr. Chaffetz. Why? Why does that require a special White House review?

Ms. Callahan. Sir, I’m the chief FOIA officer; I’m not a policy person in this area.

Mr. Chaffetz. So is that a directive that you got from the White House?

Ms. Callahan. I believe I was instructed by the Office of the Secretary to do that, and we processed it—-

Three years after the above testimony, we have confirmed that Congressman Chaffetz was right about the source of authority that required “special White House review.” In January 2009, the President issued his Executive Order on FOIA and transparency, and then Attorney General Eric Holder issued a March 2009 FOIA memo encouraging disclosure. Both of these memos were made public and lauded as standards for federal agencies. But in April 2009, a previously undisclosed memo was sent from White House Counsel’s Office to Department and Agency General Counsels, reminding them to send to the White House all records involving “White House equities” collected in response to any document request.  According to FOIA attorneys at multiple federal agencies, this White House consultation policy is still in effect.

The practice of sending agency records to the White House for review is not altogether new. In 1993, for example, the Department of Justice (DOJ) instructed agencies to send “White-House-originated” records to the White House Counsel’s Office whenever located in response to FOIA requests. However, the current White House consultation policy is substantially broader in scope.   First, this memo expands the types of documents being sent to the White House to include Congressional committee requests, GAO requests, and judicial subpoenas. Additionally, the documents to be referred need not “originate” from the White House, as the DOJ advised in 1993, but need only involve “White House equities,” an undefined term that could be construed to include any records in which the White House might be interested.   Indeed, that is exactly the type of referral that appeared to have occurred at DHS, and which is likely still occurring throughout the Executive Branch. In sum, the White House Counsel’s office is potentially receiving and reviewing, and actually demanding access to information they previously would not have been able to review under FOIA. Cause of Action is now seeking to obtain documentary evidence of this practice via FOIA requests to multiple agencies.


The 2009 memo that Cause of Action obtained:

White House Equities

How the Treasury Department and the IRS Stall FOIA Requests

  • Treasury’s Departmental Offices (DO) and the IRS gives extra scrutiny to FOIA requests from all media requesters, delaying the release of records and usurping the regulatory authority of FOIA officials
  • 13 requests to DO were marked for sensitive review were sent to the White House for review in 2009

In the wake of the DHS FOIA scandal, Senator Grassley and Congressman Issa sent a joint August 25, 2010 letter to 29 Inspectors General, asking them to investigate: (a) whether FOIA requests were given more scrutiny based upon the identity of the requester, and (b) the extent to which political appointees were systematically made aware of the requests and participate in FOIA decision-making. Our research found that only 7 of the 29 Inspectors General released their findings publicly, and none of those reports revealed any wrongdoing.

However, according to the Treasury Inspector General, both the Treasury’s main office, called Treasury’s Departmental Offices, as well as the IRS established formalized “sensitive review” processes in late 2009 that singled out media requesters and slowed down the FOIA process. At Treasury DO, a committee of senior Treasury officials reviewed requests deemed to be “sensitive” before career FOIA personnel were permitted to release any records. Notably, multiple government sources have confirmed that all FOIA requests submitted by the media were required to be forwarded to the review committee regardless of the content of the requested records. This discriminatory policy, which delayed the release of records and usurped the regulatory authority of FOIA officials, is all the more nefarious because it was established at a time when Americans were seeking to obtain vital information about Treasury’s response to a severe financial crisis.

At the IRS, any FOIA request submitted by “major media” would be labeled as a “sensitive case,” and sent to the Chief Disclosure Officer and the Director of Communications, Liaison, and Disclosure, who would decide if documents were “appropriately disclosed.”

Interestingly, in response to a FOIA request that Cause of action sent to the IRS, the IRS admitted internally that it had forgotten to put us in a “Sensitive Case Report.”

IRS Sensitive Review

According to the IG report, none of the other offices within Treasury had established a “sensitive review” process or were cited as sending requests to the White House for review.

Broken Promises on Transparency Continue

The Obama Administration cannot credibly claim to be the most transparent in history when it publicly issues memos about the presumption of openness in the FOIA process, for example, but then instructs agencies in a non-public memo to refer all records with “White House equities” to the White House for review. The White House is by its nature political and it is not subject to FOIA. Thus, it should not be interfering with the FOIA process. Not only is the FOIA process significantly stalled by this White House review  — a fact that agencies zealously keep secret from requesters — but it permits the White House’s political interests to trump the correct application of the FOIA, a disclosure statute whose purpose is ensure an informed citizenry. In sum, this Administration is more concerned with appearing to be transparent than with actually being transparent.