The new head of the powerful U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee may claim he's just trying to open up government. But Rep. Darrell Issa's blanket demand to know the names of everyone who has filed a Freedom of Information Act request in the past five years is a political ploy and fishing expedition that serves as a chilling effect on citizens seeking public records. The California Republican needs to drop the charade.
Late last month, Issa sent a letter to 180 federal agencies seeking copies of all FOIA requests from the last three years of the Bush administration through the first two of the Obama administration. Among the information he wants: the name of the requestor, the date filed and the information sought. With roughly 600,000 FOIA requests filed each year across agencies, his request will generate an estimated 3 million records. Most come from businesses seeking information on competitors. But the balance come from private citizens, journalists and others seeking information on government operations.
Issa claims he only wants to ensure that no federal agencies are engaging in the same type of delays the Associated Press discovered last year at the Department of Homeland Security. The agency had a policy, since amended, that flagged politically sensitive FOIA requests for review by the department's senior leadership before being distributed.
The extra bureaucratic step included scrutinizing who was seeking the record and delayed the release of information for weeks, running counter to federal disclosure laws. The AP found no evidence that information was withheld by the agency, but the policy routinely delayed information for weeks for any request by lawmakers, journalists, activist groups or watchdog organizations — contrary to President Barack Obama's promise to run a transparent government.
Issa's plan, disguised as an antidote, is just as egregious as the offense he seeks to cure. He is compiling a database of FOIA requestors — a list that gives even the most casual civil libertarian pause. Under congressional rules, Issa's database won't be subject to public disclosure, leaving one man in sole control of a potentially potent government database.
Issa claims his goal is to root out other agencies' lollygagging. But there is a better way than searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack of 6 million records. He should ask for the same thing the AP did to uncover the problem at the Homeland Security Department: documents detailing agencies' processes for fulfilling FOIA requests. Issa claims he's a champion of open government, but right now he looks like just another ambitious politician trying to accumulate power and identify citizens seeking information about their government.