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Critically, the FOIA Improvement Act also makes common-sense changes to one of the most over-used and abused exemptions to the law: Exemption Five. The original intent of the exemption was to make sure employees are able to be frank and honest about their opinions before a final decision is made, by allowing withholding of inter- and intra-agency records of policy discussions. Over time, the use of the exemption has expanded so that it covers practically any record that is not identified as “final.” The bill checks agencies’ power to keep records secret under Exemption Five by requiring agencies to weigh the public interest in the document’s release ,and preventing use of the exemption on any document more than 25 years old. These changes provide a lever to better pry free records the government would prefer to keep secret, and could greatly help the public better understand how and why the government has made its choices.
That is change we would all like to see. We urge President Obama to support these reforms.
Amy Bennett is Assistant Director of OpenTheGovernment.org.