Too often, Freedom of Information Act requests trigger the federal government's default response: delay and deny. Bureaucrats take forever to get back to a taxpayer seeking public records, then declare those records off-limits, citing one of many exemptions to the law.
On Wednesday, the government's blatant abuse of one of those exemptions made it to the U.S. Supreme Court: the practice of keeping secret records "related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency." That exemption was used by the Navy to deny a Washington state resident's request for maps showing the projected damage from an explosion at Port Townsend's ammunition dump.
Glen Milner wants to know whether his community would be at risk if the dump blows sky high. Government attorneys told justices that providing that information would allow someone with destructive intentions to find out exactly where some types of explosive materials are stored.
But the Navy didn't use FOIA's national security exemption to deny Mr. Milner's request. It used the personnel exemption, which is such a stretch that Chief Justice John Roberts said the court would have to "torture the language in FOIA" to prevent the release of the records.
"If the agency has a rule that says put Explosive A in Building 1 and put Explosive B in Building 2, that's hard for me to explain that it's just a personnel rule, other than, as Justice Scalia says, everything, all functions have to be undertaken by humans," Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
Perhaps the biggest problem with FOIA requests is the arbitrary range of responses citizens can encounter from state to state, agency to agency. Indeed, Mr. Milner's attorney, David Mann, told justices that while one Navy official refused to release records associated with the ammunition dump, an official at a nearby submarine base, responding to an FOIA request, provided Mr. Milner with a map that showed the probable range of damage from an explosion at that location.
When the high court issues its decision next year, it should sharply define and limit FOIA's personnel exemption. The ruling must send a clear signal to federal gatekeepers everywhere: The taxpaying public has a right to see your work.