Skip to main content

Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the Department of Justice’s Open Government Event


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Tom [Perrelli]. I appreciate that generous introduction, but it’s you who deserves the praise. We wouldn’t be here today without your leadership and without the contributions of Melanie [Pustay] and her team in our Office of Information Policy. Thank you all for your great work.

Let me also thank our colleagues from across the administration for taking the time to share your agencies’ experiences and best practices with us. I’m encouraged by your example, by your partnership and by your commitment to advancing our shared goal of opening the federal government to the people we serve.

Now, I’ve never seen so many of our fellow Americans in one place as I did last January, when President Obama took the Oath of Office. I’ll never forget – as I’m sure many of you will never forget – the sea of people covering our National Mall. They came for many reasons. But, above all, they gathered to witness a new administration make a historic pledge -- a commitment to restore the sacred bond of trust that should exist between our nation’s government and its citizens.

The President delivered. With bold executive orders on his first full day in office, he solidified this administration’s unprecedented commitment to transparency and accountability. President Obama called on the Justice Department to guide the release of information about how our government operates. And he directed our department to take the lead on fulfilling the promise of the Freedom of Information Act -- the namesake of those "FOIA" requests that have become such a common, and important, part of your work.

I took the President’s directive seriously. Clearly, so did every person in this Great Hall -- and many others far beyond it. It’s been exactly one year to the week since I issued a memorandum to the heads of our federal departments and agencies, ordering a change in the way we approach, release and disseminate information. Over the last 12 months, I’ve been impressed with the creative and proactive ways that our partners across the government have responded.

As you just heard from these agency officials, this past year has brought a shift in the way our entire federal government operates. It’s also signaled the emergence of a government that’s striving to work more openly and more effectively for the people it serves. Part of this is the simple fact that information is being reported publically at all -- whether at this event, in the unprecedented Chief FOIA Officer Reports due today, or in the Annual FOIA Reports that we’ve collected. In reviewing the data that’s come in, we’ve seen something truly promising: an obvious and encouraging change in our government’s attitude toward information.

One year ago, I required that we apply a presumption of disclosure to all FOIA requests. Put simply, I asked that we make openness the default, not the exception. Today, I’m pleased to report that the disturbing 2008 trend – a reduction in this Department’s rate of disclosures – has been completely reversed. In 2009, the Department released more than 1,000 additional full releases and nearly 1,000 additional partial releases than in the year before. While we aren’t where we need to be just yet, we’re certainly on the right path.

As we strive to decrease our backlog and increase our timeliness in fulfilling information requests, we can all be encouraged by the recent breakthroughs we’ve witnessed across the Justice Department: The Drug Enforcement Administration decreased its FOIA backlog by more than 40%; the Office for U.S. Trustees saw a reduction of more than 70%; and the Office of the Pardon Attorney eliminated its backlog altogether. The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission created a publically searchable database; the FBI developed a system to promote consistency in key operations; and our Criminal Division improved the age of its oldest request by 13 years. That’s real progress. But it’s just a snapshot of what has been – and what will be – accomplished here.

The Justice Department, like other federal agencies, is currently hard at work in developing an Open Government Plan. Shortly after taking office, the President issued a government-wide call for every department to identify and share new ways to open up for the public it serves. Our plan – which we look forward to releasing on April 7 – will serve as our answer.

But our plan is not only the result of a Presidential directive. It’s also – quite literally – a product of the people. Citizens across the country have offered and voted on ideas for our Open Government Plan. We continue to welcome these suggestions. And we take each one seriously.

Developing this plan is an important step forward, but we have further to travel. We must keep up this work. By accepting our individual responsibilities as well as our obligations to each other, I believe we can fulfill our duties to the American people in bold, effective and historic ways. And I know we can create an even more transparent and even more accountable United States government.

I’m committed to this work. I’m inspired by your contributions to it. And I look forward to our continued progress.

Thank you all.

Updated March 14, 2016