White House Accused of Blocking Records Access

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‘     WASHINGTON (CN) — A government watchdog group has sued the Obama administration, claiming a memo from the White House”s former top lawyer gave federal officials cover to illegally withhold public documents.
     Among the sensitive documents withheld or delayed by the administration are U.S. Justice Department records related to filmmaker Roman Polanski”s potential extradition, and emails and text messages from Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Washington, D.C. Federal Court.
     In 2009, Gregory Craig, at the time the administration”s counsel, allegedly drafted a memo to federal agencies advising them to first consult with the White House Counsel”s Office before releasing documents involving “White House equities,” including those released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
     According to the Cause of Action Institute, which filed the 33-page lawsuit, federal agencies have used the memo to withhold documents that contain anything potentially embarrassing or sensitive to the administration of President Barack Obama.
     “Agencies apply [the memo”s order] broadly,” the lawsuit states. “They seek White House approval before producing even innocuous documents because such documents may mention the White House, or refer to a meeting or communication that occurred there.”
     Part of the problem, the institute claims, is that the term “White House equities” is vague and undefined, even though some federal officials use the term in emails to each other.
     According to the group”s complaint, in one case the term has been construed to mean correspondence sent by then-Sen. Obama to the Treasury Department from 2002 to 2007, before he was president.
     The Craig memo has also allegedly caused delays in FOIA requests, which typically require prompt response or legal explanation as to why documents are withheld. For example, the watchdog group says an August 2013 FOIA request for work calendars for Health and Human Services officers has been delayed indefinitely for White House review.
     FOIA, which was drafted during President Lyndon Johnson”s administration, has several statutory deadlines for providing public documents to the public. It is often used by journalists and advocacy group to obtain documents that federal agencies would otherwise keep secret, but the law also includes several carve-outs to allow agencies to redact or even withhold sensitive documents entirely.
     The 2009 memo seemed to be a departure from previous administrations in that it included “White House equities” as a topic to be scrutinized before release, which is “an expansion of White House review of FOIA productions,” Cause of Action Institute”s lawsuit states.
     The Craig memo also seemed a departure from his boss”s own words earlier that year. In January 2009, Obama sent an agency-wide memo asking for a presumption of openness regarding FOIA requests.
     According to the institute”s lawsuit, the White House has since reversed course to clamp down on FOIA requests.
     “FOIA contains no provision governing review of agency FOIA productions by the White House,” the lawsuit states, noting that the president has no power to review FOIA requests that don”t concern the White House directly.
     For example, requested State Department documents related to then-Secretary of State Clinton”s email and text messages were improperly delayed due to the memo and were provided only after another lawsuit, the institute alleges.
     “Such broad White House supervision of agency FOIA processes and consequent delays in production of documents are inconsistent with the governing statute,” the lawsuit states. “The White House has no statutory right to demand review of FOIA productions and thereby delay public access to those documents.”
     The Craig memo has caused a backlog of FOIA requests, according to some critics. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said in 2015 that the memo had caused “yahoos at the White House having to review each and every document that falls under FOIA.”
     However, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., has said the FOIA backlog is “a problem that didn”t start with [the Obama] administration.”
     The Cause of Action Institute, which was formerly known as Freedom Through Justice Foundation, is a conservative-leaning nonprofit watchdog group. It says it advocates for “taxpayer interests and economic freedom.”
     The institute has filed several FOIA lawsuits against federal agencies in recent years, according to Courthouse News” database.
     Monday”s lawsuit names as defendants current White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston and several federal agencies, including the Treasury Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Environmental Protection Agency.
     Craig is perhaps most well-known for ordering the release of 2002 internal memos from the Bush Administration related to the torture of suspected terrorists, which said that typical treaties of armed conflict did not apply to al-Qaida or Taliban militia.
     In 2011, Craig said the release of those memos was “in the public interest, and it did no damage to national security.”‘