Lawsuit Accuses White House of Setting Roadblocks to Freedom of Information Act Requests

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Gregory Craig

Greater transparency in government was supposed to be a major policy goal of President Barack Obama, whose White House has been accused of interfering with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.


Cause of Action, a conservative legal organization, has filed suit in federal court claiming Obama officials have repeatedly held up FOIA requests sent to a dozen federal agencies.

Under U.S. law, the White House is not subject to the FOIA. However, “as a matter of general principle, [it] is not supposed to interfere with agency reviews of FOIA requests or the release of federal agency documents,” Josh Hicks reported at The Washington Post.


But interfere it has, Cause of Action insists, saying the White House derailed FOIA requests to the following agencies: the departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, plus the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of Management and Budget.


The plaintiffs claim the trouble started in April 2009, when then-White House counsel Gregory Craig informed Executive Branch operations that any FOIA requests that might have “White House equities” should go through his office. The term has never been defined, but some agencies are taking it to mean any document that mentions the White House.


“It’s hard to evaluate the policy if you don’t know what it means,” Anne Weismann, chief counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told The Washington Times. “Is this overbroad? Are they asking for something that is inappropriate under the FOIA? The real question is, how is this applied? Obviously, if agencies use the consultation process to delay or to prevent the disclosure of documents that are not exempt, then that is a problem.”


The FOIA requires that agencies respond to requests within 20 days, or 30 days for “unusual circumstances.” Cause of Action is seeking a court order requiring the agencies named in the suit to make a final determination about the requested documents within 30 days.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Lawsuit Claims White House Hindering FOIA Requests (by Josh Hicks, Washington Post)

Worse than Nixon? Obama White House Accused of Hiding Public Information (by Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, Washington Times)

Cause of Action Lawsuit (pdf)


Leave a comment