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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

White House admin support just like the cooks and cleaners

With discussion here (in some circles) about extending freedom of information legislation to organisations not now covered, and general thinking that the US provides a model for those arguing for improvement in our access to government information laws, a court decision that the White House Office of Administration is not an agency for the purposes of the US Act comes as a surprise.It's also a reminder that there are limits on what the US has to offer in terms of good practice.

Timothy B. Lee provides a good overview of the issues involved. Just shows what potential confusion arises when you live at the office:
"The (Federal) FOIA applies to executive branch entities with "substantial independent authority," and it specifically excludes the president's personal staff and advisors. For example, the executive residence staff, which does cooking and cleaning for the president and his guests, is not subject to FOIA requests. Similarly, purely advisory bodies like the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Security Council are exempt from FOIA because they simply provide advice and administrative support to the president, and wield no independent authority.

The Office of Administration provides administrative support to the executive offices of the president and vice president. It offers a variety of clerical, administrative, and technical services, including—most crucially—e-mail services. In 2007, CREW made a demand under FOIA that OA produce internal documents concerning the extent of its e-mail problems. Rather than producing the requested materials, the Office of Administration reversed its decades-long policy of complying with FOIA requests. CREW sued, and OA told the courts that due to its proximity to the president and its lack of policymaking authority, it was not an "agency" as that term is definied by FOIA, and that it was therefore exempt from information requests.

In today's decision, Judge Kollar-Kotelly bought this argument. Acknowledging that it was a close case, she concluded that OA was more like the White House housekeeping staff than the full-blown federal agencies that FOIA was intended to cover"

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