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The News Without Transparency: Records not so Open with Obama

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The Department of Justice’s recently proposed changes for the way it executes Freedom of Information Act requests have inspired a flurry of media attention from various news outlets and criticism from government watchdogs.

The groups criticizing the DOJ, which includes the Sunlight Foundation, are concerned that the new rules are too restrictive and threaten the federal law’s usefulness and fairness to the regular citizens and journalists it is meant to serve.

Here at Sunlight, we compared the new and old regulations, and discussed how the changes would be a huge step back for transparency. But we’re not the only organization writing about FOIA problems and setbacks. The backlog of FOIA requests and agencies taking much longer than allowed by the statute to fill requests are examples of the frequently discussed issues over the past few years.

Based on data gathered by government entities responsible for collection of FOIA statistics, and despite the presidential promise to do better, it appears things have only gotten worse. In March 2010 the Associated Press assessed how well President Obama's promises to comply more fully with FOIA had been carried out after a year.

The article found that agencies were more frequently citing exemptions to avoid complying with requests. Similarly, in July 2011 iWatch News vented frustration with the State Department for neglecting to respond to FOIA requests for four years.

These articles, as well as others that look at the administration's compliance with FOIA, frequently begin with holding agency practices to the standard set by President Obama's memo to the heads of executive departments and agencies. The memo states, "The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails." The text of this memo is available from the Briefing Room on WhiteHouse.gov. It is located under "Presidential Memoranda" under January 2009.

In general, agencies are required to submit annual reports detailing their interaction with FOIA requests. FOIA.gov links to At-a-Glance reports that highlight the major findings from each agency. FOIA.gov also allows you to search the data submitted as part of agency reports and create acustom-made report. The Office of Information Policy also generates specific reports to emphasize interesting FOIA statistics.

The AP article states that agencies cited the "deliberative process" exemption - one that the president's memo specifically directed agencies to avoid using so frequently - 70,779 times in 2009. This is up from the 47,395 times it was cited under George W. Bush in 2008. The article also states that agencies overall cited exemptions at least 466,872 times in 2009, again up from 312,683 times in 2008. Meanwhile requests are declining, down by 11 percent - 493,610 in 2008 to 444,924 in 2009. The AP also claims that the "majority of agencies - 12 out of the 17, or 70 percent of those surveyed - increased FOIA requests granted in full, in part or both." On what could be a positive note for the administration,  the AP notes that the number of backlogged requests had dropped from 124,019 in 2008 to 67,764 in 2009. These facts and statistics about the number of FOIA requests filed and completed can be found using the "Advanced Report" function on the FOIA website. This function allows you to select the specific data you would like included in your report as well as which agencies you would like included in a comparison. Unlike the basic report function, "all agencies" is an option using this tool. Specific data choices include exemptions, requests, appeals, processing time, requests granted, and backlog. Much of this information could also be obtained by looking individually at each agency's annual report. The AP article only looked at 17 agencies, but the FOIA data tool allows you to look at many more if you so choose. The iWatch News story states that for the State Department, "the median response for complex FOIA requests is 228 days." The State Department makes available its annual FOIA reports from 1998 through the present. The 2010 report provides the statistic used in the article. The story also states that for fiscal year 2012 the State Department has requested "$166,000 in new money to depend the department in FOIA-related lawsuits." The department's budget requests are available from 2002 through the present. The 2012 "Department of State Operations Congressional Budget Justification" includes the numbers cited in the article.

"The News Without Transparency" shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we've redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you'd like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.