The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to result in, you know, the freedom of information. Obviously, not everything the government produces paperwork-wise can end up in the public’s hands, but far more should be turned over to the public than has been.
Using a proprietary blend of stonewalling and excessive fee demands, countless government agencies have managed to keep public documents away from the public. It takes a lawyer to win FOIA lawsuits, which may be why corporations are getting their hands on far more documents than American citizens.
Exemption b(5) is, by far, the federal government’s favorite. It’s vague enough it can cover just about anything.
inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency
Sprinkle a little intra-agency imagination over a pile of paperwork and responsive documents suddenly become unresponsive and are removed from life support as soon as feasibly possible. FOIA lawsuits are the metaphorical families in the waiting room, begging Dr. Info to reconsider pulling the plug.
Exemption b(5) has been used to withhold everything from State Department’s “what a load of crap” Post-It note (attached to a Congressional proposal to designate Pakistan as a sponsor of international terrorism) to the CIA’s files on the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.
The abuse of this exemption may have peaked in 2013, when federal agencies used it more than 81,000 times. But things haven’t necessarily improved in the last seven years. In 2018, (b)5 was still cited more than 60,000 times. The (otherwise considerable) drop in deployment may be due to 2016 legislation, as the Project on Government Oversight explains:
One possible factor in the reduced use of Exemption 5 since its peak in 2013 may be reforms instituted by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. One reform barred the use of the exemption for records more than 25 years old…
That would remove the CIA’s strategic blockade of its Bay of Pigs docs. But there’s plenty of info far less dated that still receives the (b)5 “get out of transparency free” card. Multiple investigations of ICE detention centers highlighted the inconsistent application of the feds’ go-to exemption. Documents handed to NPR [on the left in the image below] by ICE contained plenty of information. The docs handed to POGO, however, contained only redactions and the b(5) excuse.
Somehow the same information was both able to be released and able to be withheld under exemption b(5). As POGO points out, the b(5) boilerplate makes zero sense when applied to the text released to NPR. This exemption isn’t supposed to deny the public access to common sense conclusions.
It’s difficult to understand how these statements—that inadequate mental health care leadership leads to poor care, and that solitary confinement is the “most important issue” at this particular detention center—can be properly withheld under Exemption 5. There is no attorney-client advice, and no deliberation on a pending policy decision.
If this is repairable, it will take an act of Congress, just like it did the last time. This exemption is like qualified immunity for cops: why not toss it up against the wall and see if it sticks? Since it usually takes litigation to reverse agency non-judgment calls, the house — which spends other people’s money to stick it to the people — almost always wins.