Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Obama administration refused to provide information more than 550,000 times in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.
“I worry that over the course of several administrations but certainly this administration, the stiff arm that is being given to the media, that has been given to the public has become excessive. In this administration there were more than 550,000 times that the administration has claimed some sort of exemption and not let that information out,” he said at a National Journal event focused on Chaffetz’s chairmanship.
“In fact, less than 30 percent of the time that somebody submits a FOIA request do they actually get information back, a full and complete accounting of what they asked for, less than 30 percent. That’s just not who were are as a people.”
Chaffetz said the U.S. differs from every other country in the world by being open and transparent.
“We are self-critical in order to become better. We do look back in order to move forward and this is the tool. You shouldn’t have to go to a federal judge in order to get the information,” he said. “Even when Congress asked for the information or even if we issue a subpoena we often don’t get the information.”
According to Chaffetz, the FOIA backlog has doubled under the Obama administration.
“Am I trying to pick on President Obama? No, I’m not — but on the very first day in office President Obama did say he would be the most transparency administration in the history of administrations,” he said.
The Oversight Committee is holding hearings with members of the media and FOIA officers from various agencies about the FOIA process.
In general, Chaffetz said administrations tend to tighten up on the amount of information released to avoid embarrassment.
“What’s fascinating to us is to see the redacted and then the unredacted and most of the time, at least documents I’ve seen, they have just simply been in the category of embarrassing as opposed to really revealing a CIA agent’s covert name or something,” he said.
As part of FOIA reform, Chaffetz suggested limiting the number of exemptions, claiming that has become the most common excuse taken by every administration. He said specific dates and times for FOIA responses could be enacted.
During a discussion after his remarks, Chaffetz was asked if he would continue the Benghazi terrorist attack investigation that started under the committee’s previous chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
“It really is stunning – the lack of information. Even when subpoenas are issued the select committee still hasn’t gotten documents from the State Department and they have them, they just haven’t allowed Congress to get them,” he said.
Addressing the issue of security at U.S. embassies around the world, Chaffetz criticized the State Department’s “design excellence” program put in place under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Secretary Powell put into place a way that we build embassies and consulates and then you have Secretary Clinton moving forward and she totally changed it. The way Secretary Powell did it – I think there were three GAO reports and one Inspector General report saying we are building them faster and under budget,” he said. “Design excellence has slowed down the process and made these so much more expensive, I mean by the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
In some cases, Chaffetz said, embassy construction and renovation has totaled millions of dollars per cubicle under Clinton’s design excellence program.
As an example, Chaffetz mentioned that Clinton spent $120 million in federal funds on a “toxic waste dump” for the new U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The projected cost of the construction reportedly went from $577 million to $763 million.