FOIA performance is getting worse

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Despite promises for more government openness, the Obama administration actually approved fewer Freedom of Information Act requests for federal documents last year.

In 2010, government agencies received 544,360 FOIA requests, up 41,000 from 2009, but agencies responded to 12,400 fewer requests. About half of the agencies took longer to release records than they had the year before, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

The administration did use fewer “deliberative process” exemptions, which allows behind the scene decision-making to be hidden. Still, it was commonly used at the Department of Homeland Security, which accounted for 80 percent of deliberative process exemptions government-wide.

Agencies dealing with sensitive information tended to refuse requests or process them at a glacial pace. On average, the CIA took over three months to respond to complicated requests, while the Securities and Exchange Commission took 553 days.

The SEC received a short-lived exemption from FOIA under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. In September, the exemption was knocked down, but the SEC is still exempt from disclosing its internal compliance or audit records.

Some agencies decreased the number of backlogged FOIA requests, but in some cases, requests were just shifted to a different federal agency. The Department of Homeland Security forwarded tens of thousands of requests for immigration records from its Citizenship and Immigration Services to the State Department. As a result, the State Department received and handled three times as many requests as it did in 2010, ending up with a backlog of 20,500 cases.

Last year, an investigation revealed DHS employed a political review process for FOIA requests, routing them to political appointees instead of the appropriate department and slowing down the process.

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