The administration of Barack Obama’s plans to usher in a “new era of transparency” by privatizing Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) Requests under private contractors may have just resulted in new problems.Danielle Ivory of Bloomberg reports that approximately 200 companies won more than 250 FOIA contracts from 25 governmental agencies. Bloomberg could only get a hold of one out of the 12 that they tried, and that one company, AECOM, had only one comment: “No comment.”
“Since fiscal 2009,” writes Ivory, “the year President Barack Obama took office, spending on FOIA-related contracts has jumped about 40 per cent, leaving transparency advocates wondering who’s making the decisions on whether records should be kept secret.”
Ivory points out that FOIA requests rose 5 per cent from ’10 ro ’11, but “backlogged requests” also increased 20 per cent during the same time period.
So if the administration is paying more for contractors, why has the FOIA compliance stiffened? In fact, another recent Bloomberg report gave Obama a glaring F on transparency, with 19 of the 20 requested departments failing to comply with the law.
John Winderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency group, told Ivory:
“If I was in charge of an agency and wanted to create an unaccountable FOIA process, the first thing I would do is put an outside contractor in charge of it because fewer of our accountability laws apply to them. It would just be another layer between me and the public.”
These contractors often just review materials and make recommendations, which the government Agency either approves or rejects. Contractors who need security clearances to view materials have all been properly cleared.
Kade Ellis, popular privacy blogger and rights activist working at the American Civil Liberties Union, noted that one of these companies that reviews FOIA requests has a pending case:
“There could be very serious conflicts of interest involved when private companies are tasked with managing the processes whereby sensitive (and likely embarrassing or damning) government secrets are disclosed to the public. Case in point is CACI International, a military and intelligence contractor that is facing a lawsuit alleging its employees participated in the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. CACI is one of the companies the federal government has outsourced FOIA work to over the past 10 years.”
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