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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of those tools designed to open government up to its people. It has been the foundation for: countless news stories and books revealing behind-the-scenes decision making processes and deliberations; the bedrock of plenty of congressional hearings overseeing and investigating government programs and actions; and a source that has killed thousands of acres of trees by producing the paper to print out all of the requested information. And this was in the era of “B.E.” – Before E-mail.
FOIA has also been a source of angst and discomfort for those in senior political positions of both political parties for the embarrassment caused by having your internal messages and comments on display for the news media, political opponents and the rest of the world. That’s just the situation the Napolitano team at DHS Headquarters finds themselves in today. If they didn’t have enough on their plate in trying to run the second largest department in the federal government and all of its interdependent missions, they’ve essentially put their own blood in the water to allow congressional investigators to circle them and to start to rip and tear them apart with subpoenas and public hearings.
From my time in government as an appointee at NASA and DHS, there was an adage that I distinctly remember: “Don’t put anything in an e-mail or in writing that you are not prepared to defend if it ends up in the Washington Post.”
That was healthy advice that I’m sure members of the Napolitano team got when they entered the Nebraska Avenue Complex. They seem to have forgotten those words, evidenced by the recently leaked e-mails that have been reported by Politico and other media sources.
I can’t say everything I wrote or did in government was perfect and could not cause me to squirm if I looked at everything I wrote nearly a decade later, but if there is one thing I do know, fighting a FOIA request is stupid. It’s the law. Period. Provided the information does not include intelligence, law-enforcement, confidential communications or directly personal information, if someone requests it, you have to hand it over, even if you don’t want to. That’s what the FOIA law requires.
Foot dragging, adding additional review processes and coming up with a plethora of new excuses on why not to hand information over only emboldens those seeking it and makes them think there might be more fire to the smoke you are trying to make go away.
The fact that the front office of DHS is seeing fit to insert itself in FOIA decisions should be of concern. There are always enough pots on the stove boiling over without needing to meddle with the recipes of a few others. Whether it is seeking to protect the Secretary’s reputation for future political pursuits (a constant rumor) or just good old, plain-fashioned damage control is beside the point. Inserting the front office into what should be a regular bureaucratic process has made a potentially uncomfortable situation that much worse. Something tells me they will realize that fact too late when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and his team of investigators land their crosshairs on each of the people named as slowing the process down.
The further irony of this situation is the bold pronouncements this Administration has made about its transparency. Talk to any reporter working the Washington beat and they’ll tell you this Administration is no better. In fact, it’s worse in many places than its predecessor when it comes to sharing the happenings of government.
Before this mess is over, I anticipate a few resignations or reassignments to other places in the department or government. That by itself will be a disappointment because someone who wanted to serve their country and its government has disrupted that service by doing something in which they never should have been involved.
Trying to withhold information when it’s the law to do otherwise is not service with honor – it’s service with hypocrisy. That is something I think we have all had enough of.
This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.