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FOIA Follow-up

I posted in January about Greenwire’s attempt, through the Freedom of Information Act, to access the EPA’s sealed endangerment finding on greenhouse gases’ health effects, and about how Greenwire was stymied by an administration that – for whatever reason (cough, Big 3, cough) – didn’t want the truth known.

You can probably see where this is going, so I’d like to state for the record that I don’t like to politicize the environmental debate. Doing so often distracts from getting at the essence of the issue, e.g., is it more important to ensure our citizens’ health or more important to ensure the US auto industry continues to operate as it always has? But how do you discuss that without also getting into capitalism and politics? I’d love to keep the form free from the function, but it just doesn’t work that way.

That’s my way of trying to mitigate what will be this post’s apparent pro-Obama feel. I’m not necessarily pro-Obama; I’m just pro-knowledge (unfortunately I’m also pro-lazy, which sometimes supersedes that knowledge thing, but I won’t get into all that now).

It’s Obama that recently sent a memo telling government agencies they should presume openness when considering FOIA requests. In other words, if a citizen wants to know about something we’re up to, tell them! Obama seems to be saying government secrecy should be the exception, not the rule that it had become under the previous administration.

The classic counterargument to transparency in government – that it’s dangerous – is a bit ridiculous. The benefit of an informed society outweighs most risks. Obama and his team are not stupid – there are sometimes issues of national security, and secrets must sometimes be kept. But is one such secret the fact (which we could pretty much figure out on our own anyway) that chemicals in the air are harmful?

The issue is perhaps best summed up with this, from the Office of Information Policy’s guidance release:

“While recognizing that the ‘disclosure obligation under the FOIA is not absolute,’ and that the FOIA contains exemptions to protect, for example, national security, personal privacy, privileged records, and law enforcement interests, the Guidelines stress that the President has directed agencies not to withhold information merely to prevent embarrassment, or because ‘errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.’"

We have a right to know. And it’s nice knowing our president knows that.

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“FOIA Follow-up”