(CN) – Reversing the instructions of his predecessor John Ashcroft, Attorney General Eric Holder has sent a memo instructing the heads of all executive departments and agencies to make “a presumption of openness” when deciding whether to release documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Attorney General followed through on a pledge by President Obama during Sunshine Week, a national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) to promote dialogue about open government and the public’s right to information.
During the Bush administration, Ashcroft instructed federal agencies in his own memorandum to make “full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial, and personal privacy interests” before granting requests; and the former AG assured that the Department of Justice would defend each denial unless it lacked a “sound legal basis.”
Holder officially rescinded Ashcroft’s orders and stated “an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally.”
Although he said the Act’s exemptions to protect “national security, personal privacy, privileged records, and law enforcement interests” should be upheld, he assured requesters that they would not be denied because “public officials might be embarrassed” or “errors and failures might be revealed.”
In addition, he urged agencies to provide more information to the public online, reducing the need “for individual requests” as well as “existing backlogs.” He also pushed for faster responses to requests, saying, “Long delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.”
A Justice Department spokesman said the agencies are now required to designate a senior official to recommend personnel and funding for responses to information requests.
Caroline Fredrickson, the director of Washington’s American Civil Liberties Union, noted in response to Holder’s announcement, “Strengthening the FOIA is essential as we begin to chip away at the extreme secrecy of administrations past.”