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Imperium Watch: Better Days for FOIA Requests

Backlogs are clearing at many federal agencies, though Homeland Security is swamped.

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

The U.S. government is more transparent now than it was under the Bush administration, though enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act still leaves much to be desired, according to analyses of the handling of FOIA requests by government agencies that were released during the recent "Sunshine Week."

And if it hadn't been for protests by open government activists, things might have taken a turn for the worst late last year, when the Justice Department proposed a new regulation that would have allowed it to tell people filing FOIA requests that information about criminal investigations and informants doesn't exist when, in fact, it does. When called on this right-to-lie rule, the DOJ backed down and scrapped it.

On the whole, according to an analysis by OMB Watch, which monitors the federal Office of Management and Budget, the combined average percentage of FOIA requests granted in full or in part by the Obama administration is higher than the average of the Clinton or the Bush administrations (Clinton, 89 percent; Bush, 93 percent; Obama, 95 percent). However, the group found, "the Obama administration's performance relies more heavily on partial releases than the previous administrations'." That could mean anything from the whiting out of someone's Social Security number to cases in which the really useful information is redacted from a document.

Still, says OMB Watch, "unprocessed requests are at their lowest level overall since 2003."

Farthest behind in its handling of FOIA requests is the Department of Homeland Security, which gets 51 percent of such requests, mostly about matters relating to customs and immigration. (The Defense Department gets 11 percent, the State Department 9 percent, the National Archives and Records Administration 8 percent and the other 21 agencies covered in the report, including the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, a combined 21 percent.)

However, OMB Watch points out that DHS was bombarded with 35 percent more requests in 2011 than in 2010, and applauded DHS for cutting by 15 percent its use of discretionary exemptions to refuse FOIA requests.

Also coming in for praise was the State Department, which cut its backlog of unprocessed requests by 60 percent from 2010 to 2011.

An Associated Press analysis yielded results more or less similar to the OMB Watch findings, but noted that federal agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department invoked the national security exemption to avoid releasing records more often last year (4,244 times) than in 2010 (3,615 times).

The AP also pointed out that the Obama administration increased the budget for dealing with FOIA requests by $19 million in 2011.

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