PROMISES, PROMISES: Little transparency progress
WASHINGTON — Two years into its pledge to improve government transparency, the Obama administration took action on fewer requests for federal records from citizens, journalists, companies and others last year even as significantly more people asked for information. The administration disclosed at least some of what people wanted at about the same rate as the previous year.
People requested information 544,360 times last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the 35 largest agencies, up nearly 41,000 more than the previous year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of new federal data. But the government responded to nearly 12,400 fewer requests.
The administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests, including cases when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper under the law. It refused more often to quickly consider information requests about subjects described as urgent or especially newsworthy. And nearly half the agencies that AP examined took longer — weeks more, in some cases — to give out records last year than during the previous year.
The government’s responsiveness under the Freedom of Information Act is widely considered a barometer of how transparent federal offices are. The AP’s analysis comes a day before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the Obama administration’s progress.
There were some improvements. The administration less frequently invoked the “deliberative process” exemption under the law to withhold records describing decision-making behind the scenes. President Barack Obama had directed agencies to use it less often, but the number of such cases had surged after his first year in office to more than 71,000. It fell last year to 53,360. The exemption was still commonly invoked last year at the Homeland Security Department, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of cases across the whole government.
Overall, the decidedly mixed performance shows the federal government struggling to match the promises Obama made early in his term to improve transparency and disclose more information rapidly. “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing,” Obama said when he took office.”
The White House said it was voluntarily disclosing more information, forestalling a need to formally make requests under the law, and said that agencies released information in nearly 93 percent of cases, excluding instances when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper.
“A lot of the statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they may understate our successes,” said Steven Croley, a special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy.
At an event on Monday celebrating Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli announced the unveiling of a website, foia.gov, to provide the public with a centralized resource that details how to file requests for government records.
The Obama administration censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive that the AP requested more than one year ago. The December 2009 directive requires every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public. But the White House Office of Management and Budget blacked-out entire pages of some e-mails between federal employees discussing how to apply the new openness rules, and it blacked-out one e-mail discussing how to respond to AP’s request for information about the transparency directive.
The OMB invoked the “deliberative process” exemption — the one that Obama said to use more sparingly — at least 192 separate times in turning over the censored e-mails to the AP. Some blacked-out sections involved officials discussing changes the White House wanted and sections of the openness rules that were never made official.
This year, after Republicans won control in the House and with the presidential election looming, the fight over transparency could turn political. The new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is conducting a broad inquiry into Obama’s openness promises. The investigation was at least partly prompted by reports from the AP last year that the Homeland Security Department had sidetracked hundreds of requests for federal records to top political advisers, who wanted information about those requesting the materials.
Organizations that routinely ask for government records are fighting many of the same battles for information waged during the Bush administration. Federal offices lack enough employees and money to respond to requests quickly and thoroughly, said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. With federal spending expected to tighten, the problem will likely get worse.
“They’re going to be asked to do more with less,” Weismann said.
AP’s analysis showed that the odds a government agency would search its filing cabinets and turn over copies of documents, e-mails, videos or other requested materials depended mostly on which agency produced them — and on a person’s patience. Willingness to wait — and then wait some more — was a virtue. Agencies refused more routinely last year to quickly consider information requests deemed especially urgent or newsworthy, agreeing to conduct a speedy review about 1-in-5 times they were asked. The State Department granted only 1 out of 98 such reviews; the Homeland Security Department granted 27 out of 1,476. The previous year the government overall granted more than 1-in-4 such speedy reviews.
The parts of the government that deal with sensitive matters like espionage or stock market swindles, including the CIA or Securities and Exchange Commission, entirely rejected information requests more than half the time during fiscal 2010. And they took their time to decide: The SEC averaged 553 days to reply to each request it considered complicated, and the CIA took more than three months.
Less-sensitive agencies, such as the Social Security Administration or Department of Agriculture, turned over at least some records nearly every time someone asked for them, often in just weeks.
Some federal agencies showed marked improvements, but sometimes it came at a cost elsewhere in the government. The Homeland Security Department cut its number of backlogged information requests by 40 percent last year, thanks mostly to work under a $7.6 million federal contract with TDB Communications of Lenexa, Kan., which was approved during the Bush administration. The company accomplished its work partly by forwarding to the State Department tens of thousands of requests for immigration records from Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services because the State Department makes visa determinations in immigration cases. At one point, as the Homeland Security Department was reducing its backlog, it was sending as many as 3,800 cases each month to the State Department, said Janice DeGarmo, a State Department spokeswoman.
The State Department received and handled three times as many requests in 2010 than the previous year. It ended up with a backlog of more than 20,500 overdue cases, more than twice as many as the previous year.
Also, the Veterans Affairs Department said it received 40,000 fewer information requests last year. Spokeswoman Jo Schuda said the department incorrectly labeled some requests in 2009 as being filed under the Freedom of Information Act but actually were made under the U.S. Privacy Act, a different law.
The 35 agencies that AP examined were: Agency for International Development, CIA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Agriculture Department, Commerce Department, Defense Department, Education Department, Energy Department, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Interior Department, Justice Department, Labor Department, State Department, Transportation Department, Treasury Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Trade Commission, NASA, National Science Foundation, National Transportation Safety Board, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Management and Budget, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Office of Personnel Management, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Securities and Exchange Commission, Small Business Administration and the Social Security Administration.