Slowly but surely the truth is coming out on the many measures taken by the Obama administration to suppress information about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Documents recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Judicial Watch reveal that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s minions told a British firm under contract to provide security to the Benghazi facility to say nothing to the news media.
State Department contracting officer Jan Visintainer told the firm that “the best way to deal with the inquiries is to either be silent or provide no comments.” This is yet another illustration that President Obama’s promise that his would be the “most transparent administration ever” was no better than the one about being able to keep your health insurance plan and your doctor under Obamacare.
The fact that a State Department official counseled a government contractor not to provide information the public has a right to know under the FOIA highlights that vital law’s biggest flaw: Nobody in government fears the consequences of breaking it. The FOIA requires government officials to do many things to insure that Americans can obtain copies of public documents (subject only to nine exemptions, the most important of which are national security and personal privacy). But there is nothing about going to jail or paying heavy fines for violating the FOIA.
Most civil servants in the federal government are dedicated professionals who work hard to fulfill the millions of requests departments and agencies receive every year. Most of those requests are routine, having to do with things like a family member’s military service records or how a benefits claim was processed. The problem is that higher-ups in government, including political appointees and senior career executives, often are able to exert great influence on how FOIA requests are handled. Whether it’s out of partisan loyalty to a Democratic or Republican president or a career executive seeking to prevent exposure of corruption or incompetence in the bowels of government, such officials can and do bottle up vitally important information and documents about the daily operations of government.
As David Cay Johnston wrote recently for Newsweek, “Federal agencies routinely flout the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, the so-called Open Government Act of 2007 that strengthens the 1966 law, and Obama's 2009 executive order directing agencies to err on the side of disclosure, not secrecy.” But unlike most federal laws, penalties for violating the FOIA are all but non-existent. There is vague language in the Justice Department's guidance on the FOIA about sanctions that “may be taken against individual agency employees who are found to have acted arbitrarily or capriciously in improperly withholding records. Additionally, the court must award attorney fees and other litigation costs against the government.” Yet, FOIA experts say they cannot recall a single instance of such sanctions being invoked. It's time to give the FOIA some teeth.