Interior sneaks out anti-transparency rule under cover of Trump Shutdown

Sign marks closed campground at Joshua Tree National Park in California during the partial shutdown of the federal government in January 2019

Sign marks closed campground at Joshua Tree National Park in California during the partial shutdown of the federal government in January 2019

NPCA, Flickr

Proposal would limit Freedom of Information Act requests

On Dec. 28, several days into the partial shutdown of the federal government, the Department of the Interior posted a notice in the Federal Register that it was proposing a rule to “update” how it responds to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. But like so many other changes in the Trump/Zinke/Bernhardt era, the proposal is a sneak attack on transparency itself that will ultimately favor special interests over ordinary Americans.   

Take action before Jan. 28: Tell the Interior Dept not to shut out the public

Passed in 1966, FOIA is a law that allows any person to request records from federal agencies (with a few exceptions for military secrets and the like). It’s an important tool in our democracy, and has been used by journalists, lawyers and activists to help uncover a lot of big stories--including the fact that the Zinke regime focused only on drilling and mining benefits while making the case to unlawfully gut Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.  

The Trump administration’s new proposal would severely undermine FOIA’s effectiveness, making it harder for people to submit record requests and easier for answering agencies to reject or ignore them. Among other changes, the rule would allow agencies to impose a monthly limit on how many requests it answers; free the government from the responsibility of redirecting FOIA requests to a sister agency that may be better suited to answer them; require more detail in requests, lest they be deemed overly “vague”; and give more flexibility to agencies in how long they take to answer requests. 

The proposed rule “poses a fundamental threat to our work protecting America’s shared public lands” -- Alison Flint, litigation manager and senior policy analyst, The Wilderness Society 

These measures would result in a Trump Interior Department even more nakedly driven by mining, drilling, logging and other special interests, with fewer opportunities for the public to see what their government is up to. 

What’s more, it may have been against the rules to post the proposal during a federal shutdown. And with most Interior employees furloughed, none of the comments submitted about the rule so far are being posted for public consumption--another sin against transparency.    

“During a period of unceasing efforts to roll-back protections for our most prized public lands, we get a proposal restricting the public’s right to know what our government is up to. The draft rule is unprecedented in scope, appears to violate the Freedom of Information Act in a number of respects, and poses a fundamental threat to our work protecting America’s shared public lands,” said Alison Flint, litigation manager and senior policy analyst at The Wilderness Society, in a statement. “To add insult to injury, the Department of the Interior slipped in this draft rule change over the holidays and during a government shutdown, providing a woefully inadequate 30-day public comment period.” 

Rule continues Trump war on transparency and public input 

Ironically, the problem the Trump administration claims to be addressing through these proposals—they are receiving a much higher number of FOIA requests than previous administrations—could be resolved if they weren’t so opposed to transparency to begin with.  

“The Interior Department created a heavy backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests by concealing information that should have been made public in the first place,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel and Bureau of Land Management Action Center director at The Wilderness Society, in a statement. “Instead, we must submit a FOIA request for everything, and fight for every response.” 

And this is far from the Trump administration’s—or the Zinke/Bernhardt Interior Department’s—first attack on FOIA. In early 2018, The Washington Post reported the Bureau of Land Management was recommending a suite of actions that would limit FOIA requests from a single sender and potentially increase fees for certain types of requests. Not long before the new intra-shutdown rule proposal, then-Interior Secretary Zinke assigned FOIA request oversight to Interior Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch adviser with cozy industry connections whose new role was widely viewed as being a means to obstruct FOIA requests. Jorjani also happens to be the author of the new proposed rule.  

We only have until Jan. 28 to say something on the record about the latest shady anti-transparency scheme and show the Interior Department that despite its best efforts, Americans are paying attention. Click here to submit a comment telling Interior to leave FOIA alone.