March 18, 2016

Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final article in a series published by Poynter to commemorate Sunshine Week. View the rest here.

The U.S. government in 2015 came up empty-handed when asked for public records more than 100,000 times, The Associated Press disclosed Friday.

The unfulfilled requests, which add up to one out of every six queries, “set a record for the number of times…federal employees told disappointed citizens, journalists and others that despite searching they couldn’t find a single page requested,” according to the AP. More than three-quarters of requesters received censored files or nothing at all, another unprecedented development.

The FBI couldn’t find any records in 39 percent of cases, or 5,168 times. The Environmental Protection Agency regional office that oversees New York and New Jersey couldn’t find anything 58 percent of the time. U.S. Customs and Border Protection couldn’t find anything in 34 percent of cases.

The Associated Press report came toward the conclusion of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open records where journalists and others spotlight the best examples of government transparency and flag egregious examples of opacity.

The analysis also comes on the heels of a disclosure from VICE News that the Obama administration worked behind the scenes with the Department of Justice to frustrate attempts to reform the Freedom of Information Act. The investigation — ironically revealed by a FOIA request — showed that the White House “strongly opposed passage” of the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014, which would have codified a White House directive that government records should be presumed public.

Jason Leopold, the reporter who first published the memos, told Poynter on Wednesday he was “taken aback” by attempts to stall reform even though he says such obstruction is typical of the Obama administration’s disposition toward public records:

It was virtually everything contained in the reform legislation, even the creation of an online FOIA portal that would make FOIA work efficiently. That was a huge surprise. Importantly, the Justice Department, speaking on behalf of the administration, opposed codifying into law Obama’s presidential memorandum in which he instructed agencies to act with the “presumption of openness.” To see the administration memorialize its position in documents was shocking.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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