Now Available: Obama Foreign Aid Order Obtained in Groundbreaking Case

by Gavin Baker, 3/3/2014

Today, the Center for Effective Government is releasing the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development, which it obtained through a path-setting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. President Obama originally issued the order in September 2010. Our story exemplifies a situation where disclosure eventually prevailed but with more delay and hassle than should be the case under the law.

The Center submitted FOIA requests for the directive, also known as PPD-6, with the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). After the agencies refused to disclose the order, we filed suit, represented by counsel from Public Citizen. In December 2013, Judge Ellen Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in the Center’s favor and ordered the agencies to produce the document. The agencies did not appeal the ruling and provided the directive to us (see the State Department’s release and USAID’s release).

We are pleased to be able to make the directive available to the public in order to enhance understanding of current government policy on foreign aid and global development. Although the Obama administration had announced the outlines of the policy when it was issued in 2010, and agencies were actively implementing the order, the details of the policy were previously unknown. Now, organizations and individuals concerned with development policy will be able to understand the directive’s full scope.

The case highlights both the importance of FOIA, as well as the law's current limitations. While the administration had steadfastly rebuffed requests to release the directive, the court ruled that the public has a right to know about these orders, which the president conveyed throughout the executive branch. To permit otherwise, Judge Huvelle wrote, would allow the government “to engage in what is in effect governance by ‘secret law.’” We firmly agree with that principle and believe it reflects the intent of FOIA.

The good news is that, ultimately, FOIA worked. The bad news is that it did not work particularly well and came with a great deal of wasted time. We waited months for answers to our requests, despite FOIA’s requirement that agencies respond within 20 days. While we waited, the agencies left us in the dark that they had referred the requests to National Security Council staff for their review. After our requests were eventually denied, we waited additional months for the agencies to consider our appeal, again despite a requirement to reply within 20 days. All of this for a document that the White House had already publicized – with a fact sheet that, we now know, quotes (in part) directly from the same document the agencies refused to release any part of.

While we are glad to finally be able to make the document available, it should not have come with such delay and expense – both to us and to the government. We hope our case will encourage the administration to improve its handling of future FOIA requests and reconsider its approach to secret law by embracing the principle that official policies of the government should always be subject to the light of day.

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