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Hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary - "Faster FOIA: Seeking Greater Transparency in the Executive Branch"

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Location: Washington, DC

Prepared Statement of Ranking Member Chuck Grassley
Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Executive Business Meeting
The Faster FOIA Act

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mr. Chairman, I'd like to say a few words about the Faster FOIA bill.

I know that Senator Cornyn and you have put a lot of work into this bill and we appreciate it. The bill creates a commission to study the delays in the processing of information requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

I want to thank you and Senator Cornyn for agreeing to the changes that we requested. I believe that they significantly improve the bill.

As a result of those changes, the issues that the commission will study and report on now include --- whether any disparities in processing information requests have occurred because of political vetting; --- and the extent to which political appointees have been involved in the processing of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

There's a real need to investigate these issues.

Given my experience in trying to pry information out of the Executive Branch and based on investigations by the media, I'm disappointed to report that President Obama's statements about transparency are not being put into practice. Federal agencies under the control of the Obama administration's political appointees have been more aggressive than ever in withholding information.

Perhaps the most dramatic and troubling departure from President Obama's vow to usher in a new era of open government was revealed in e-mails from the Department of Homeland Security obtained by the Associated Press in July of 2010.

The Associated Press uncovered that for nearly a year President Obama's political appointees at Homeland Security screened Freedom of Information Act requests and delayed responses.

Specifically, career employees were ordered to provide Secretary Napolitano's political staff with information about the people who asked for records -- such as where they lived, whether they were private citizens or reporters -- and about the organizations where they worked. If a member of Congress sought requested documents, employees were told to specify Democrat or Republican. The political vetting often delayed the release of information for weeks beyond the usual wait.

There are also news reports of employment retaliation arising out of the uncovering of the political vetting policy at Homeland Security.

In particular, there are reports that the career employee who complained about the political vetting policy to the inspector general was demoted by the Obama administration.

This career employee was the deputy chief in charge of the Freedom of Information Act. She was the most senior career employee in this area at Homeland Security.

She was denied a promotion and the day after she met with congressional investigators, --- her job responsibilities were reduced and she was told that she had a week to move out of her current office and into a smaller one.

We cannot ignore or minimize this type of conduct.

The situation at Homeland Security is not an isolated incident and the Faster FOIA bill could not have come sooner.

An article in the Washington Post last week by the president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the president of the Society of Professional Journalists --- confirms that at least some in the media are concerned about the Obama administration's poor performance in the area of transparency.

According to the Washington Post article, the Obama administration has imposed restrictions on reporters' newsgathering that exceed any constraints put in place by the Bush administration.

For example, the piece in the Washington Post reports that the Obama administration muzzles scientists and experts within federal agencies. When they are allowed to talk about important public health issues, a chaperone often supervises every word.

The Obama administration has talked a great deal about the reams of data it has put online. However, as the Washington Post article explains, -- although this information is useful, --- it's merely a matter of the government posting what it wants when it wants, on sites most citizens would never think to visit.

Meanwhile, as the Washington Post reported, --- in more than a third of requests made for public records last year, the Obama administration failed to provide any information at all. The Obama administration is releasing fewer records under the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did. And when a response is provided, it often is incomplete or comes years later.

Ironically, the Obama administration even censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive.

So there's a real disconnect between the President's words about transparency and the actions of his political appointees.

Open government and transparency are more than just pleasant sounding words. They are essential to maintaining our democratic form of government.

Throughout my career I have actively conducted oversight of the executive branch regardless of who controls the Congress or the White House.

Open government is not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It has to be a bipartisan issue. Our differences on policy issues and the workings of the government must be debated before our citizens in the open.

It's our job in Congress to help ensure that agencies are more transparent and responsive to the people we represent.

I believe that investigating the political vetting of information requests under the Freedom of Information Act is part of our responsibilities to our fellow citizens.

So I believe that the changes to the Faster FOIA bill help to fulfill our constitutional duties as legislators.


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