New Interior FOIA rule could make it harder to get public documents

A new Interior Department rule could make it harder for news organizations and nonprofits to get public information from the government.

Filed to the Federal Register between Christmas and New Year's Day on Friday, the suggested rule would change the way the agency must file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by relaxing timelines by which information must be handled and increasing the burden on requesters to be specific in what they are looking for.

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The changes, critics say, will ultimately make it harder for people to get the government documents they are seeking and could add to the already high number of FOIA lawsuits against the Trump administration.

“I think this is a problem that they have created for themselves, by failing to be transparent, by failing to make documents available to the public, and this is going to make it worse,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society.

“They are depriving the American people of their right to know what the government is doing — they are only going to cause themselves more fights and more litigation.”

The rule change, quietly submitted to the Federal Register during a government shutdown without any public press release by the agency, changes many aspects of which FOIAs will be processed in the future.

Some of the changes include requiring FOIA requesters to be more specific in their searches in order to alleviate Interior of "an unreasonably burdensome search," potentially placing limits on the number of FOIA requests each group or person can send monthly in order "to treat requestors equitably,” and giving the agency more flexibility in putting requests on a slower processing track.

An Interior spokesperson would not answer questions about the rule change, citing the government shutdown.

The rule was signed by Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, a former adviser to Charles and David Koch.

An Interior spokesperson in early December cited increased litigation, largely stemming from the FOIA backlog, as a reason for the rearrangement, saying it will allow more “consistency.”

“Restructuring the FOIA operations and management structure will increase accountability, consistency, collaboration, and distribution of resources," the spokesperson said. "They will also complement technology and related processing improvements already underway. This increased efficiency will mean greater transparency."

Outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE in November quietly issued a secretarial order giving Jorjani the authority to oversee all FOIA requests at the agency. Jorjani had been serving as acting solicitor and would serve as chief FOIA officer, according to the Nov. 20 decree.

Zinke's order from November hinted that Jorjani's role change was tied to a historical uptick in FOIA requests, which the agency blamed on the system’s response structure.

“It is clear that some aspects of the FOIA program's decentralized structure hinder efficient and effective management of operations in the current environment," Zinke wrote. "Different reporting structures across Bureaus, varying sets of operating procedures, and insufficient levels of accountability contribute to the need for Department-wide clarification of the roles and responsibilities of the FOIA program.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE announced in early December that Zinke would be exiting the administration at the end of the year. Zinke leaves Interior on the tail of a number of ethics scandals, including a Justice Department referral by a government watchdog to investigate a land deal he entered into with the chairman of Haliburton, an oil services company.

"These changes are designed to facilitate more official stonewalling and delays in producing public records, especially on fast developing news stories," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, in a statement.

“Interior current political appointees prefer to operate in secrecy and regard the Freedom of Information Act as a nuisance, not a responsibility,” he said.

Interior’s FOIA office has seen a 30 percent increase in requests between fiscal 2016 and 2018, according to the administration. The agency’s Office of the Secretary, which oversees requests related to Zinke and his political staff, said there has been a 210 percent increase in requests over that time period.

Interior said it processed more than 6,900 FOIA requests during the last fiscal year and had 129 active FOIA lawsuits when the year ended, on Sept. 30.

The public comment period on the FOIA proposal ends on January 28.