Earlier today, President Obama issued his first set of executive orders. One of these orders instructs “federal agencies to handle requests for information from the public and press under the Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] with an eye toward disclosure, not refusal.” The order reportedly returns to “pre-Bush administration policies” regarding FOIA.
In response to the “new standard of openness,” conservative talker Rush Limbaugh said that he fears that the more open FOIA rules will make it easier for Bush to be held to account for any misdeeds he committed as president:
LIMBAUGH: What I’m afraid of is that what Obama did with this executive order is actually make it easier for the media to go get Bush documents. Because you know Pelosi and some of the guys over in congress are talking about war crimes trials and charges and so forth. [...]
What I’m afraid of is what Obama’s done here is made the gathering of the information for this kind of stuff– This is not American. This is not America. This is not what America does. We don’t– This is Banana Republic kind of stuff.
With any luck, Limbaugh’s fears of an open and accountable government will be realized. When he entered office in 2001, President Bush heralded a new era of secrecy, directing then-Attorney General Ashcroft to issue new rules that essentially neutered FOIA:
[The Bush administration's 2001 FOIA] directive encouraged federal agencies to reject requests for documents if there was any legal basis to do so, promising that the Justice Department would defend them in court. It was a stark reversal of the policy set eight years earlier, when the Clinton administration told agencies to make records available whenever they could, even if the law provided a reason not to, so long as there was no ”foreseeable harm” from the release.
As a result of that directive, the government’s FOIA compliance rate deteriorated. By 2006, 2 in 5 FOIA requests were left unprocessed, the number of exceptions cited to justify withholding information increased 83 percent, and the Justice Department’s grant rate fell 70 percent.
While a number of influential figures, including Obama, have expressed some reluctance to pursue independent investigations of Bush administration officials or programs, Obama’s FOIA order may at least provide journalists and other interested parties with the tools they need to, as Limbaugh put it, “go get Bush documents.”