Though President Obama vowed to run the most transparent administration in history, his White House has quietly empowered itself to censor or delay the release of information in ways that not even Richard Nixon envisioned during the Watergate scandal, according to federal workers on the front lines of processing open records requests.
The workers, who spoke to The Washington Times only on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that an April 15, 2009, memo from White House Counsel Gregory Craig to all federal agencies has slowed, and in some cases nixed, the public release of government documents that would have been released under prior administrations.
Mr. Craig’s memo instructed federal agencies that they no longer could release under the Freedom of Information Act documents that contained “White House equities” — essentially any information involving or referencing communications with the White House — without first clearing it with presidential attorneys.
Because the White House is not a federal agency, it is exempt under the FOIA law and, as a matter of general principle, is not supposed to interfere with agency reviews of FOIA requests or the release of federal agency documents, legal analysts say.
White House approval
But the memo — which first surfaced about a year ago — has been interpreted by agencies as requiring an extra layer of review for “anything that could embarrass the White House,” said one longtime FOIA officer at a federal agency.
Added a second FOIA officer who worked in the Bush and Obama administrations: “Under the Obama administration, I am personally aware of multiple cases [including those in litigation] in which records were sent to the White House simply because they dealt with a politically hot topic. The records did not originate from or even mention the White House.”
Such sweeping reviews were never required during the first five decades of the law’s existence, and the new instructions have had a chilling effect on what federal agencies have been willing to release to the public, the workers said.
“If it sounds vague, it’s because it was,” one FOIA officer said. “Congressman Darrell Issa once commented that the White House was keeping a Nixonian list of FOIA requesters and if you think about it, it’s exactly that. They not only want to know what is sent out from the government, but also who’s doing the asking.”
Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Times that the White House’s use of the equities policy to commandeer federal agency FOIA requests was illegitimate.
“When the White House puts itself in the role of information gatekeeper, they’re politicizing a process that is governed by the law and agency rules,” Mr. Issa said. “Courts have recognized that some internal White House conversations deserve protection from disclosure, but their claims that they can hide interactions with public agencies are illegitimate.”
White House officials declined to speak about the directive or how it has impeded the release of information, saying only that the memo “speaks for itself” and that its attorneys want to review only information that affects the White House or the president.
White House spokesman Matthew Lehrich told The Times via email, “It’s simply false to say that agencies consult the White House on all FOIAs. As has long been the practice across administrations of both parties, agencies consult the White House as a courtesy when White House equities are implicated.”
When The Times called Mr. Lehrich and asked him to clarify the policy by defining the phrase “White House equities,” he demurred. “I’m going to let the memo speak for itself and wish you a good day,” he said.