More than 30 organizations have written to CIA Director David Petraeus, above, to protest a recently adopted policy that allows the agency to charge up to $72 an hour to review requests to declassify secret records. (File photo / Agence France-Presse)
Open government advocates are protesting a recently adopted CIA policy that allows the agency to charge up to $72 an hour to review requests to declassify secret records.
The effect "will be to price the public out of submitting" requests for "mandatory declassification review," the American Library Association, Sunlight Foundation and more than 30 other organizations said in a letter Thursday to CIA Director David Petraeus.
The new approach "is absolutely contrary to President Obama's call for ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government.' " they added.
One of the letter signers, the Virginia nonprofit law firm National Security Counselors, filed a lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to void the policy. The CIA signaled the policy shift in the Federal Register last September without giving advance notice or seeking public comment, a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, according to the suit. The suit, which seeks class-action status, also charges the CIA with ignoring the Independent Offices Appropriations Act, which bars agencies from charging fees for services that generally benefit the public.
Until the September change, the CIA on paper applied the same "more reasonable" fee schedule to declassification reviews that it used in processing Freedom of Information Act requests, said Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors. Even that schedule would have been objectionable, McClanahan said, except that the CIA did not charge the fees in practice. He estimated the number of declassification review requests to the CIA in fiscal 2011 at about 1,500.
With the new policy, the CIA "decided that it could kill two birds with one stone," Bradley Moss, a Washington lawyer working with McClanahan on the suit, said in an email. "They could guarantee an increase in fees collected while at the same time scaring off all but the well-financed requesters from seeking declassification review in the first place."
The review system has been a popular and successful tool with researchers, historians and others, the letter said, in part because it allows requesters to appeal agency rejections to an independent review panel.
The CIA's press office did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.
The organizers for the letter were OpenTheGovernment.org, a nonpartisan coalition, and the National Security Archive, a private research organization based at The George Washington University.