Obama Administration Sets Record for Denying Freedom of Information Requests

Friday, March 20, 2015
Redacted document released by U.S. government

President Barack Obama has once again demonstrated that his administration is not committed to making government more transparent, in this case when it comes to releasing documents to the public.

 

Last year, the Obama administration set a record (again) for denying or censoring requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Associated Press (AP).

 

After reviewing statistics released by the administration, the AP reported federal agencies “took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn't find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.”

 

The administration also admitted that in about 30% of the cases in which it kept information hidden, those decisions were wrong and violated the law. These discoveries were only made when people or organizations filing FOIA requests challenged an agency’s decision, meaning the number of such incidents may be higher because not everyone appeals their rejected request.

 

The AP also reported that the number of unanswered FOIA requests grew by 55% in 2014, resulting in a current backlog of more than 200,000. The increase isn’t surprising, considering the administration eliminated about 9% of the full-time employees who work on FOIA requests. The total number of workers handling those requests is now the lowest it’s been in five years, according to AP’s Ted Bridis.

 

Per-request response times range from a day to 2.5 years, reported the administration. They obviously failed to include cases such as that of the AP, whose FOIA request of the U.S. Treasury Department for information on Iran trade sanctions took nine years to get a response, according to Associated Press president and CEO Gary Pruitt. When it finally did come through, it was found that nearly all 237 pages of the 237-page response were blacked out.

 

Citing a law that allows agencies to redact text to protect private information, such as home addresses and Social Security numbers, the National Archives and Records Administration blacked out one sentence repeatedly in records sent to AP in response to an FOIA request. But it missed the redaction on one page, revealing what the censored sentence was: “We live in constant fear of upsetting the WH (White House).”

 

Last year saw a record 714,231 FOIA requests made to the federal government, covering 100 different agencies. The government spent a record $434 million trying to keep up with the requests, but it also spent $28 million on legal fees fighting to keep its records secret from those making the requests. It censored or outright denied a record 39% of all requests.

 

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has tried to bolster the FOIA through new legislation, told the AP that agencies under Obama have a “disappointing track record” that “is hardly the mark of an administration that was supposed to be the most transparent in history.”

 

Nonetheless, the White House put a positive spin on the AP report. “When it comes to our record on transparency, we have a lot to be proud of,” spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. “And frankly, it sets a standard that future administrations will have to live up to.”

- Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff

 

To Learn More:

Administration Sets Record for Withholding Government Files (by Ted Bridis, Associated Press)

Public’s Access To Government Records Faces Roadblocks Aplenty (by Gary Pruitt, McClatchy)

FOIA Requests by Agency (U.S. Department of Justice)

Lawsuit Accuses White House of Setting Roadblocks to Freedom of Information Act Requests (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Obama Administration Increasing Censorship rather than Increasing Transparency (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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