Ask any reporter or public watchdog dealing with federal agencies and they will tell you the Freedom of Information Act is an invaluable tool to ensure government transparency and accountability. They can also share stories of dealing with mind-numbing bureaucracy and yearslong waits.
The 55-year-old law remains powerful but flawed, with disclosure from some agencies only coming after legal action, an unacceptable barrier to what must be readily available public information.
The latest example comes from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, which has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the agencies failed to respond to more than a dozen FOIA requests filed since 2019.
According to the suit, ICE summarily closed the center’s requests without providing a reason. The center also alleges instances where requests disappeared without explanation.
“These summary closures violate FOIA on its face and appear to be a new way in which ICE avoids compliance with its obligations,” said center director Angelina Godoy. “Whether this behavior results from bureaucratic ineptitude or deliberate obfuscation, it does not comply with the requirements of federal law.”
The center has used public records to produce a series of scathing reports on federal immigration enforcement, including on conditions at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma. The latest investigation, released in May, detailed how claims of sexual abuse in detention are often ignored or not properly investigated. ICE and detention center operator The Geo Group have rejected the allegations.
This is not the first time the center has sued the government for information. Along with ICE and DHS, it has successfully obtained records from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Customs and Border Protection.
The problems with obtaining public information from the federal government are not limited to a few agencies or to any one administration.
In his first day in office, the Obama administration famously put out a memo that directed the government to err on the side of transparency. “In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” it read. The administration then proceeded to set a record for unfulfilled requests and helped kill a FOIA reform bill that had bipartisan support.
President Donald Trump then topped his predecessor. An Associated Press report found that in the first year of his administration, the government set a record for withholding and censoring files, as well as spending more than $40 million defending denials in court.
There is guarded hope that President Joe Biden will do better. Earlier this year, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued new FOIA guidelines, directing agencies to apply a “presumption of openness” when administering records requests and said the Justice Department would not defend nondisclosure decisions that fail to do so.
Regardless of Garland’s assurances, Congress should act to ensure they are not empty promises. It shouldn’t take a costly lawsuit to remind those in power that public information belongs to the public.