On the Trail: Shining a light on DOI’s anti-transparency efforts

On the Trail: Shining a light on DOI’s anti-transparency efforts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If there was ever a government action that was more Kafkaesque than the Department of Interior’s proposed revisions to how it will process Freedom of Information Act requests I’d be surprised.

Federal environmental and wildlife agencies have been on the attack, promoting aggressive changes that would thwart the public’s right to know about its policies and practices.

A leaked memo advising the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withhold or delay the release of records requested under FOIA that wildlife advocates say was from the Trump administration’s Justice Department is evidence of the federal government’s efforts to keep valuable information from the public and advocacy groups pursuing wildlife protections.

In addition, the Washington Post discovered a Bureau of Land Management report that suggests the agency limit the number of FOIA requests from any one group and require more stringent justification for fee waivers.

And if that’s not enough to make you think the government is building a wall around public information, there’s also this:

An Associated Press analysis also found that the Trump administration censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records more often in 2017 than at any point in the past decade. FOIA requesters received censored files or nothing at all in more than 75 percent of the 823,000 requests, AP’s analysis found.

In December came more unsettling news. DOI proposed expansive changes to its FOIA regulations that would undermine government transparency. The changes would narrow the means by which FOIA requests could be submitted, end the practice of allowing agencies that receive requests to forward them to the proper government department that has the responsive documents, allow an agency to deny a request because it finds it burdensome to locate the documents ( a blatant contradiction of the Act) and require filers to identify the exact agency activity it is seeking information about, effectively giving the agencies cover to deny requests it finds not specific enough.

And there’s more, including changes that would make it harder for citizens and organizations to request fee waivers.

Last year, FoA disclosed that many U.S. hunters receiving permits to import trophies of lions and elephants killed on safari in Africa had donated to Trump, the Republicans and were connected to Safari Club International. The data was obtained through a FOIA request. The story was picked up in major media, embarrassing the administration. We not only rely on FOIA requests for our investigative work for our news stories, but our Wildlife Law Program also routinely uses FOIA requests to gather information for possible lawsuits against FWS and BLM, as do other wildlife advocacy groups. We can’t help but think our aggressive FOIA activity has sent the agencies into a panic by the way it is quickly trying to shut its doors to requests for documents, data and its activities.

And here comes the even more insane part: DOI has issued a deadline for public comment on the proposed Freedom of Information changes at a time when there’s a partial government shutdown, thus thwarting efforts to oppose the changes.

“In light of the government shutdown, which began on December 21, 2018, there are currently no Interior Department staff available to receive and review public comments. Furthermore, there is no certainty that public comment can even be submitted. Although Interior has directed the public to submit comments via the website regulations.gov that site indicates that ‘continued systems operations cannot be guaranteed,’” FoA’s WLP noted in a joint letter with other nonprofits to DOI Acting Secretary David Bernhardt.

“What’s more,’’ the joint letter states, “although organizations have submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain more background records regarding the proposed revisions, the Interior Department is not currently accepting Freedom of Information requests.

And further, if you really want to laugh although you feel like crying, the joint letter points out:

“Although the proposal indicates that the public can contact Cindy Carfaro with the Office of Executive Secretariat for further information, Ms. Carfaro is not currently available due to the shutdown.”

DOI responded with this compromise. They extended the deadline by one day, BY ONE DAY, to Jan. 29.

This is the height of absurdity. The government is proposing to make it harder to get information. You can’t even get more information about the policy change because DOI is not accepting any requests for information about the changes. No one was there for weeks to accept public comments against the changes because of the shutdown and when the government reopens under a tentative agreement, the backlog of emails and delayed workload facing government employees is daunting.

The right to access information from the federal government is one of the pillars of America’s democracy and a crucial tool for animal rights advocates. We must stand up and fight against these changes that certainly will leave the public in the dark and allow the federal government to maneuver around sunshine laws meant to make sure it operates in the public’s eye.

To learn more about DOI’s proposed rule change and submit comments click here. (But remember, you can’t access the site until the government is reopened. We hope Ms. Carfaro hurries back.)

Communications Director Fran Silverman oversees FoA’s public affairs and publications. Her previous experience includes editor of a national nonprofit consumer advocacy site, staff writer and editor positions and contributing writer for The New York Times.