Obama administration’s FOIA record worse than Bush’s

Bloomberg | The New York Times
Bloomberg News found that 19 of 20 federal agencies did not comply within 20 days to a request for travel expenses made under the Freedom of Information Act. Jim Snyder and Danielle Ivory report:

“When it comes to implementation of Obama’s wonderful transparency policy goals, especially FOIA policy in particular, there has been far more ‘talk the talk’ rather than ‘walk the walk,’ ” said Daniel Metcalfe, director of the Department of Justice’s office monitoring the government’s compliance with FOIA requests from 1981 to 2007.

Analysis done by the Scripps Howard Foundation reveals that President Obama’s administration granted a smaller percentage of open records requests in its first two years in office than George W. Bush’s administration granted in its final three years.

White House spokesperson Eric Schultz defended the administration’s transparency efforts, telling Bloomberg, “Over the past four years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives.” Schultz “noted that Obama received an award for his commitment to open government,” Snyder and Ivory write. “The March 2011 presentation of that award was closed to the press.”

Pamela Engel, an Ohio University student intern for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire in 2011, compiled data from 15 cabinet-level federal departments (Justice Department, Homeland Security, State Department, etc.). By email, she said she found these overall rates for the resolution of FOIA requests:

  • 2010 – 62.3% granted, 37.7% denied
  • 2009 – 61.7% granted, 38.4% denied
  • 2008 – 59.5% granted, 40.6% denied
  • 2007 – 76% granted, 24% denied (excluding Veterans Affairs, which had a spike in requests that raised the granted rate up to 91%)
  • 2006 – 76.5% granted, 23.5% denied (excluding Veterans Affairs, which which had a spike in requests that raised the granted rate up to 91.5%)

Figures released by the Justice Department show that in 2011, 64.7 percent of FOIA requests were granted in full or in part.

A breakdown by department showed the Agriculture Department granted the highest percentage of requests (87 percent in 2010), while the Treasury Department granted the lowest (51 percent). The Department of Homeland Security was in the middle, with 69 percent of FOIA requests granted in 2010. Some others:

  • Department of Defense
    2010 – 61% granted, 39% denied
    2009 – 62.5% granted, 37.5% denied
  • Department of Justice
    2010 – 55.3% granted, 44.7% denied
    2009 – 48.4% granted, 51.6% denied
  • Department of State
    2010- 54.8% granted, 45.2% denied
    2009 – 19.9% granted, 80% denied

Many State Department denials were based on legal exemptions, Engel said, as classified information would be.

“I was surprised at how often federal departments denied requests for a reason other than a legal exemption,” said Engel, now a reporting fellow at The Columbus Dispatch. She and Scripps granted Poynter permission to post a spreadsheet with the results of her research.

Bloomberg reports that the overall number of FOIA requests increased to about 631,000 in 2011, compared with about 601,000 in 2010. But there were also more people processing those requests:

The Justice Department reported in 2008 that there were 3,691 full-time FOIA personnel across all departments and agencies. In 2011, the figure increased by 19 percent to 4,400, according to the department. Some agencies outsource FOIA-related tasks, including the redaction process. The government has spent at least $86.2 million on contracts described as pertaining to FOIA since 2009, according to federal procurement data compiled by Bloomberg.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan noted the discrepancy between President Obama’s UN speech Tuesday praising the First Amendment and his administration’s crackdown on whistle-blowers.

“There has been some improvement during the past three years,” Engel says, “but the sunshine law experts I spoke to said it hasn’t been enough, and there is still much work that needs to be done to get to the root of the problem, which they say is the culture of secrecy in Washington.”

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