National Security Increasingly Cited in Freedom of Information Act Denials; EPA Suspected of Selective Obstruction

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Republican lawmakers and the media have questioned the sincerity of the Obama administration to cooperate with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.


An analysis of FOIA requests by the Associated Press (AP) found that federal agencies increasingly last year cited national security reasons for withholding information from journalists and members of the public.


In 2012, national security exceptions were used 5,223 times—compared to 4,243 instances in 2011 and 3,805 times in 2009, President Barack Obama’s first year in office.


The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was particularly fond of the national security excuse, citing it 60% of the time last year, compared to 49% in 2011.


But the CIA wasn’t the only agency to rely on it. Other federal agencies that invoked the national security exception included the Office of Management and Budget, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.


In the case of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), national security wasn’t the issue—just general stonewalling on FOIA requests.


GOP lawmakers contend the agency has deliberately blocked such requests, based on an internal email they obtained. That email, written by EPA lawyer Geoffrey Wilcox, suggested various ways to derail FOIA requests. "One of the first steps is to alert the requestor that they need to narrow their request because it is overbroad,” wrote Wilcox, “and secondarily that it will probably cost more than the amount of $ they agreed to pay. Unless and until they respond to that, and tell us they will pay more, we usually tell them in writing that we are suspending our response to their request until they get back to us."


Senators David Vitter (R-Louisiana) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Representative Darrell Issa (R-California) have asked Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the EPA to determine if agency officials have deliberately blocked FOIA requests.


The EPA has been under heightened scrutiny since it was discovered last year that top agency officials were illegally conducting EPA business with pseudonyms and private email accounts.


AP also concluded that most government agencies are taking longer to respond to the public’s FOIA requests. The State Department, for instance, takes an average of two years to respond to “fast track” requests that involve urgent situations, such as a person’s life being at stake. The CIA reportedly denied all such expedited requests last year.


The AP analysis, which involved a review of 33 agencies, did not determine if the Obama administration is abusing the use of national security as a reason for so many of its FOIA denials.


"We've seen a meteoric rise in the number of claims to protect secret law, the government's interpretations of laws or its understanding of its own authority,” Alexander Abdo, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney for its National Security Project told AP. “In some ways, the Obama administration is actually even more aggressive on secrecy than the Bush administration."

-Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

FOIA Requests Being Denied More Due To Security Reasons Than Any Time Since Obama Took Office (by Jack Gillum and Ted Bridis, Associated Press)

Congressmen Demand Investigation of EPA Selectively Blocking FOIAs (by Mark Flatten, Washington Examiner)

Obama Justice Dept. Battles against Freedom of Information Act (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

New Rule Would Allow Government to Say Existing Records Don’t Exist (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

The Oldest Unanswered Freedom of Information Act Requests (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

Agencies Obstruct Transparency (AllGov)


Leave a comment