Technology & Freedom

Federal Communications Commission is more secretive than the CIA

You might suppose the CIA would be the federal agency least anxious to answer Freedom of Information Act requests, but you’d be wrong. In 2010, the CIA rejected only 0.7 percent of FOIA requests, well below the overall government average of 7.3 percent.

So which agency is the most secretive?  The Federal Communications Commission is a strong contender for the position.  During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, it was noted that the FCC denies an astounding 48 percent of Freedom of Information Act requests.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) introduced his “FCC FOIA Transparency” amendment by citing these figures, and declaring that “requiring the FCC to take additional steps will help bring the agency in line with its responsibilities for openness, transparency, and public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.”  The Congressman’s amendment would go on to become part of the Federal Communications Commission Reform Act of 2012, which passed the House March 27, 2012.

Opinions about the FCC’s responsiveness vary widely. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) have worked together very well on the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking investigation, but they have dramatically different opinions of the FCC’s transparency. Issa’s House Oversight Committee gave the FCC an “A” grade for handling FOIA requests, while Grassley says the agency deserves “an ‘F’ for its handling of requests from 99.6 percent of members of Congress,” as he told The Hill. If that percentage sounds oddly specific, it’s because Grassley feels the FCC is much more responsive to the few Congressmen who chair committees with direct FCC oversight responsibilities.

It’s not just Grassley who feels this way. At the end of 2010, several opponents of the FCC’s “Net Neutrality” orders, including incoming Energy and Commerce chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), sent FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski a letter blasting his agency for refusing to allow public review of orders that some felt were an administrative attempt to impose defeated legislation upon the public.

Over the summer of 2011, this kind of criticism became bipartisan, as Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) requested access to the FCC’s analysis of the National Broadband Plan and was refused. Dingell told Genachowski he was “deeply disturbed that an agency created by Congress so often, and so willfully, fails in its duty to respond in a substantive manner to Congressional requests for information.”

After exchanging several letters with Genachowski, Dingell—who generally supports greater broadband regulation—concluded, “Unfortunately, the paucity of substantive responses to my questions has served only to substantiate my fear that the commission’s proposed path with respect to the regulation of broadband is based on unsound reasoning and an incomplete record, and is thus fraught with legal risk.”

One reason critics find the FCC’s secrecy so troubling is that the agency has cultivated extensive relationships with certain advocacy groups, and representatives of the very communications industries it regulates. That’s hardly a novel discovery when the interface between Big Government and Big Business is examined. When government and industry are fused, things inevitably become quite “cozy” in the bureaucratic labyrinth.

The absence of transparency in these cozy relationships has become troubling, particularly because FCC Chairman Genachowski promised plenty of it when he took office. This is highlighted by the LightSquared scandal, in which a politically connected company was able to push a potentially dangerous technology—a new 4G broadband spectrum that could interfere with GPS systems—through the FCC’s regulatory maze with remarkable speed.

After a four-star general told investigators that he came under political pressure to change his testimony concerning the dangers of LightSquared technology, the House Armed Services subcommittee called Genachowski as a witness at its hearings, but he didn’t show up. This earned the public dismay of Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who said he considered “the Chairman’s failure to show up today to be an affront to the House Armed Services Committee.”

The FCC is preparing to embark on new frontiers of regulation, as it wrestles down an Internet that certain groups believe is entirely too wild and free. The FCC has become very picky about who gets invited into its closed-door meetings, and doesn’t like to discuss those meetings with outsiders. Concerns about backroom deals are not soothed by the huge pile of rejected FOIA requests building up in the halls of regulatory power.

Update: I received some links to reports from the FCC to make the case that their FOIA denial rates compare more favorably with other government organizations.  I invite readers to explore this information and judge for themselves:

Sign Up