The Obama administration claimed an unmatched commitment to government transparency this week, even as it denied or delayed more requests for public information than ever, and claimed exemption from freedom of information laws.
After announcing that its Office of Administration would no
longer be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) on the
National Freedom of Information Day, the White House released a
report on FOIA requests in 2014.
“We actually do have a lot to brag about,” White House spokesman
Josh Earnest said about the report, which claimed success in
quenching the public’s thirst for government transparency. It was
released during Sunshine Week, a mid-March US tradition for the
past decade. Actual facts and figures in the report, however,
paint a very different picture.
Thirst for information
Individuals, organizations and companies filed a record 714,231
request for information under the in 2014. Only 647,142 of those
requests received a response, a 4 percent decrease from 2013,
according to an AP analysis of the report. So the White House
actually beat its own record – in censorship.
However, in 215,584 instances the response was that records could
not be found, the requests were unreasonable or improper, or the
person or persons filing the request refusing to pay for copies.
Pay to play
Many FOIA requests are effectively stonewalled by outrageous
fees. The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported that one journalist who asked the
Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for files on the arrest of Mexican
drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was told the files would cost
In 2014, the federal government spent $434 million on fulfilling
FOIA requests – and $28 million paying lawyers trying to keep
certain records secret.
This could take a while
Out of 100 federal agencies, more than half took longer to answer
requests in 2014 than the year before. And the length of time
they took to respond ranged from one day to over 2 years. In
fact, AP sued the State Department over a request that has been
languishing since 2010.
At the end of 2014, the backlog of unaddressed FOIA requests
stood at over 200,000. Perhaps in part because 375 employees –
almost 9 percent of federal staff tasked with dealing with FOIA
requests – were laid off.
If FOIA represents sunshine, government foot-dragging is a rain
cloud. Here’s some of the worst cases from 2014: https://t.co/OmV0VAPne4
— EFF (@EFF) March 17,
The answer is ‘no’
FOIA allows the government to refuse to disclose information when
doing so would “hurt national security, violate personal privacy
or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making.” In
2014, it invoked this justification in response to 554,969
requests, including some from previous years.
When the government does release records, they are often censored
or redacted, often inconsistently. This was the case in 250,581
instances, or 39 percent of all requests made in 2014. The AP
cites one case where a document concerning the purchasing of the
First Lady’s dresses had a sentence censored on one page, but not
on another. The sentence was: “We live in constant fear of
upsetting the WH (White House).”
— Freedom of the Press (@FreedomofPress) March
A ‘broken’ system
Though it was approved in both the House and the Senate, a FOIA
reform bill died a quiet death in Congress last December, with
House majority leader John Boehner refusing to put it up for a
final vote. It later emerged that the Department of Justice was
objecting to some of the language in the bill – even though it
was identical to their own FOIA policy.
“The systems created to give citizens information about their
government are badly broken and getting worse all the time,”
Gary Pruitt, the CEO of Associated Press, wrote in a commentary
The Freedom of Information Act (5 USC § 552) was signed into law
in 1966, and enacted in 1967.