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Obama’s Welcome Change on FOIA

In a welcome shift from its predecessor, President Obama’s administration has issued new guidelines favoring disclosure and transparency in handling Freeom of Information Act guidelines.

Obama first signaled a shift on his first day in office when he issued a presidential memorandum calling on agencies to “usher in a new era of open government.” Attorney General Eric Holder followed up on March 19 with new FOIA guidelines directing all executive branch departments and agencies to apply a presumption of openness when administering FOIA.

The devil will be in the details, of course, but the high-level endorsement of openness — and the explicit reversal of the so-called Ashcroft Memorandum issued in President Bush’s first year in office — is important. Holder’s memo tells federal bureaucrats that FOIA is the responsibility of everyone, and directs Chief FOIA Officers in each agency to report each year to the Department of Justice on their progress in improving FOIA administration.

It is safe to say that no good deed will go unpunished. If federal agencies and federal judges take the new policy seriously, investigative reporters will no doubt find documents which will embarrass the administration and the government at some point. But that’s as it should be under FOIA, which as Holder said in his March 19 memo “reflects our nation’s fundamental commitment to open government.”

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