Investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson charges the Freedom of Information Act — once a formidable press tool to maintain government transparency — has now been twisted by federal officials to "obfuscate, obstruct and delay."
Attkisson fired the blast at a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where she related how she watched her daughter literally grow up before the Defense Department handed over FOIA documents she'd requested 10 years beforehand, the Daily Signal reports.
"FOIA should be one of the most powerful tools of the public and the press in a free and open society," the former investigative reporter for CBS News testified.
"Instead, it’s largely a pointless, useless shadow of its intended self."
Attkisson was among big-name reporters invited to speak at the hearing called by Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the committee’s chairman, about roadblocks that have caused FOI delays, obstructions and violations, the Daily Signal reports.
Under the law, the government has to respond to a request within 20 business days, with the option of a 10-day extension under "unusual circumstances."
And though federal agencies often cite funding and staff as the problem in sticking to the deadline, Attkisson pointed the finger of blame at the agencies themselves.
"FOIA law was intended to facilitate the timely release of public information," she said, the Daily Signal reports. "Instead, federal officials have perverted it and use it to obfuscate, obstruct and delay. The broken system is not by accident, it’s by design."
Attkisson also slammed unnecessary redactions or rejection of requests because of misuse of the law’s various exemptions — dramatically holding up entirely redacted documents from the Department of Health and Human Services with the exemption "(b)5" boldly printed in black across the white pages, the Daily Signal reports.
That exemption — the most widely used, the Daily Signal notes — allows government to withhold what are often referred to as "pre-decisional" documents, like a list of applicants or vendors competing for work, or those that would be available only to opposing parties in a lawsuit.
"These are about HealthCare.gov … nothing that has to do with national security, nothing that could possibly put us in danger or help terrorists," Attkisson said. "(B)5 should be interpreted very narrowly. Instead, they slap that on just about anything."
She derided the exemption as a bald-faced excuse to "withhold it because you want to."
Attkisson told lawmakers the law can only be fixed once violators are forced to face "meaningful criminal penalties," rather than avoiding punishment by using taxes to pay for fines associated with their violations, the Daily Signal reports.
"There are no repercussions for them to withhold material," Attkisson said. "But there are repercussions if they release information."
Also testifying were Vice News investigative reporter Jason Leopold, Newsweek investigative reporter Leah McGrath Goodman and New York Times assistant general counsel Dave McCraw.
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