Amid the chaos of the ongoing government shutdown and winter holidays, critics on Monday are calling out the Trump administration for quietly moving to make it harder for the public to find out what goes on behind closed doors at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“This is a calculated attempt to shield the Interior Department from scrutiny, to shield it from watchdogs, and to shield it from accountability.”
—Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians
A proposed new rule (pdf) filed to the Federal Register on Friday would enable the department—which, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been responsible for pushing through President Donald Trump’s widely condemned regulatory rollbacks—to ignore public records requests that officials deem too “unreasonably burdensome.”
The rule would loosen timelines for the agency to fulfill Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests—which journalists, advocacy groups, and others use to attain government records in the name of accountability—and increase requirements for how specific requests must be. Critics of the proposal warn it could jeopardize efforts to keep the public informed about the actions of the administration.
“This is a war on transparency,” declared Jeremy Nichols of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “This is a calculated attempt to shield the Interior Department from scrutiny, to shield it from watchdogs, and to shield it from accountability.”
“They are depriving the American people of their right to know what the government is doing—they are only going to cause themselves more fights and more litigation,” Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society, told The Hill.
The rule was filed without an agency press release—and spokespeople declined multiple media outlets’ requests for comment, citing the government shutdown—but the Federal Register filing claimed the department has seen a 30 percent jump in requests over the past two years and such “changes are necessary to best serve our customers and comply with the FOIA as efficiently, equitably, and completely as possible.”
“These changes are designed to facilitate more official stonewalling and delays in producing public records, especially on fast developing news stories.”
—Jeff Ruch, PEER
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