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Tales from Stasiland: Send us a FOIA request, and we’ll investigate you

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During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama offered a lengthy, detailed critique of the way the Bush Administration had undermined the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). “We need more transparency in government,” he argued. He came into office showing signs of acting on his promise. In a memo instructing agencies to treat FOIA requests with a presumption of validity, he wrote:

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears,

One year later, however, the government was asserting secrecy claims more aggressively than ever before, with rationalizations that were no less preposterous than in the Bush era, according to a review by Raw Story’s John Byrne.

Now the Associated Press discloses that the Department of Homeland Security’s techniques for thwarting the president’s FOIA directive have taken a still creepier turn. Political hacks review each request, starting with a probe into the person who sent it:

For at least a year, the Homeland Security Department detoured requests for federal records to senior political advisers for highly unusual scrutiny, probing for information about the requesters and delaying disclosures deemed too politically sensitive, according to nearly 1,000 pages of internal e-mails obtained by The Associated Press. The department abandoned the practice after AP investigated. Inspectors from the department’s Office of Inspector General quietly conducted interviews last week to determine whether political advisers acted improperly.

The Freedom of Information Act, the main tool forcing the government to be more open, is designed to be insulated from political considerations. Anyone who seeks information through the law is supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose confidential decision-making in certain areas. But in July 2009, Homeland Security introduced a directive requiring a wide range of information to be vetted by political appointees for “awareness purposes,” no matter who requested it.

The story is further evidence that political hacks will behave like political hacks, regardless of party affiliation, and that the new national-security state will tenaciously guard its secrets.

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