The White House is exempting one of its key offices from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations which allow for the full or partial disclosure of previously undisclosed information and documents controlled by the United States government.
The White House said the move to exempt the Office of Administration from the FOIA rules is consistent with court rulings according to which the office is not subject to the transparency law.
In 2009, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled that the office was exempt from the FOIA but made it obligatory for the White House to archive the e-mails to be released under the Presidential Records Act not until at least five years after the end of the administration.
The White House announces its decision in a notice to be published in Tuesday's Federal Register, saying it will no longer act in accordance with regulations on how the office complies with FOIA requests based on "well-settled legal interpretations."
However, the timing of the decision raises a question among transparency advocates amid a national debate over the preservation of Obama administration records.
"It is completely out of step with the president's supposed commitment to transparency," said Anne Weismann of the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "That is a critical office, especially if you want to know, for example, how the White House is dealing with e-mail."
White House record-keeping duties like the archiving of e-mails as well as other types of activities are handled by the Office of Administration. The office has been subjected to the FOIA regulations for about three decades.
"This is an office that operated under the FOIA for 30 years, and when it became politically inconvenient, they decided they weren't subject to the Freedom of Information Act anymore," said Tom Fitton of the conservative Judicial Watch.
Late in the Bush administration, CREW sued over about 22 million e-mails which were deleted by the White House. At first, the White House began to comply with that request, but then changed its course of action.
"The government made an argument in an effort to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the lawsuit in order to stop the archiving of White House e-mails," said Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
The university has used analogous requests to help foreign policy decisions come to light.