CREW secured an important victory today when the Department of Interior abandoned proposed changes to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations, in response to comments from CREW and a coalition of good government groups. The abandoned changes would have made it more difficult for the public to obtain records shedding light on Interior’s activities, which have been particularly troubling under the Trump Administration.
Interior’s proposed rule had several problematic components, including provisions that would have allowed the agency to summarily deny requests that sought a “vast quantity of material” or that did not specify an “agency activity, operation, or program.” CREW, along with a coalition of six other groups, submitted comments objecting to these provisions as inconsistent with both the letter and spirit of FOIA.
In a final rule dated October 24, 2019, Interior announced that it has “withdrawn the proposed change[s],” citing concerns raised by CREW and others that the changes were “unclear,” “could unreasonably burden requesters,” “were too inflexible,” and “were impermissible under the FOIA.”
FOIA compliance at Interior is more important now than ever. Under the Trump Administration, the agency has taken aggressive action directly at odds with its mission, including opening public lands to drilling and mining, repealing key environmental regulations, and other measures that appear calculated to benefit the energy industry rather than the public good. The agency has also been rife with ethics scandals. Indeed, in his short two-year tenure as Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke amassed no fewer than 18 federal investigations into his conduct—investigations that ultimately led to his resignation.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Interior experienced an uptick in FOIA requests and litigation. Yet the agency’s response, as reflected in the proposed rule, was not to reallocate resources to better fulfill its legal obligations, but rather to change its FOIA rules to make it harder for the public to obtain records. While the final rule does not fix all the problems with the proposed rule, we commend the agency’s decision to abandon the particularly problematic changes highlighted above, and encourage it to adopt further FOIA reforms designed to enhance–not restrict–transparency and accountability.