Monday, May 25, 2009 | 2:06 a.m.
A federal appeals court ruled last week that the Freedom of Information Act does not require the White House to turn over information about millions of possibly missing Bush administration e-mails.
A three-judge panel agreed with a lower court, saying the White House’s Office of Administration, which holds the information, is not subject to the public records law. The ruling, which is not expected to be appealed, is a major blow to efforts to make the government more transparent.
It is particularly notable because of the way the Bush administration handled public records. For years the Office of Administration complied with the Freedom of Information Act and even had someone assigned to handle requests for public records. However, the Bush administration changed its policy when it came to the missing e-mails. In response to a lawsuit seeking documents related to the computer system and its search for the e-mails, the Bush administration claimed the Office of Administration was exempt from the law.
The change of heart undoubtedly came because of what is in those documents. The purportedly missing e-mails included those sent during the administration’s preparations for the invasion of Iraq and very well could have contained information damaging to the Bush White House.
The appellate court’s decision may encourage future administrations to follow suit and hide information in the Office of Administration and any other agency deemed not to be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
President Barack Obama’s administration has held to the Bush administration’s position, which has dismayed many open-government advocates because of the president’s pledge to make government more transparent.
Despite the Obama administration’s decision, Congress should change the law to make sure that the Office of Administration, as well as any other potential hiding places, is covered by the Freedom of Information Act.