U.S. Attorney General Releases Memo Establishing a New Standard of Openness for Freedom of Information Requests

In a January 21st memo, President Obama called for U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to set new federal guidelines to carry out a more transparent interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act (see our previous blog post here).  On March 19th, Holder issued a memo to the heads of federal agencies with instructions to err on the side of openness when responding to FOIA requests. Holder ordered discretionary disclosure of all records unless their release threatens national security, personal privacy or other FOIA exemptions.  If a record contains this sort of sensitive information, the agency must do partial disclosure when possible.  In doing so, Holder rescinded a 2001 memo by then Attorney General Ashcroft which had set a more restrictive standard for interpreting FOIA.  Holder's memo reversed that Bush Administration policy which had required the Department of Justice to defend federal agencies' rejections of FOIA requests for any legally defensible basis.

Holder also expressed that agencies should use the Internet to proactively share records.  For information which is not yet online, Holder encouraged each agency's Chief FOIA Officer to make sure their staff has the resources it needs to carry out FOIA requests quickly and efficiently.  For requests that take more than ten days to complete, a tracking number must be issued to the requester, who can then check the status of their request via a phone call or online.