After a big push from a broad group of nonprofit organizations, journalists, and individuals, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees removed a provision from the Senate National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would have hindered the public’s ability to get records from the Department of Defense (DoD) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Notably DoD had asked for a special exemption separate from government-wide reforms in the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, recently passed and signed into law this July.
The provision included in the Senate’s version of the bill in a closed markup, Section 1054, largely mirrored language proposed by the Defense Department and would allow the DoD to withhold unclassified information related to its operations. The language could have been used to conceal information about the military’s interrogation and treatment of prisoners, handling of sexual assault complaints, oversight of contractors, drone program, and other matters of compelling public interest. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chair and Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee, led efforts to remove the provision in the Senate, arguing that such a broad exemption to FOIA should go through the committee of jurisdiction over the law.
While the provision was included in the Senate’s final version of the NDAA, it was removed in conference with the House, as reported by Bloomberg.
As some question the future of public and press access to information, this is an important stand by Congress to defend the public’s right to know about the spending and operations of the Pentagon.