The Obama administration couldn't keep pace with the increasing number of people asking for copies of government documents, emails, photographs and more under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of the latest federal data by The Associated Press.
Federal agencies did better last year trying to fulfill requests, but still fell further behind with backlogs, due mostly to surges in immigration records requested from the Homeland Security Department. It released all or portions of the information that citizens, journalists, businesses and others sought — and outright rejected other requests — at about the same rate as the previous two years. The AP analyzed figures over the last three years from 37 of the largest federal departments and agencies.
There was progress: The government responded to more requests than ever in 2011 — more than 576,000 — a 5 percent increase from the year before. Offices less frequently cited legal provisions that allow them to keep records secret, especially emails and documents describing how federal officials make important decisions. Agencies took less time, on average, to turn over records: about one month for requests it considered "simple" and about three months for more complicated requests. And 23 of 37 agencies reduced their individual backlogs of requests or kept buildups from increasing.
The government's responsiveness under the Freedom of Information Act is widely viewed as a barometer of how transparent federal offices are. Under the law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. Sunday was the start of Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information.
Across the 37 agencies, the government turned over all or parts of the records people sought in about 65 percent of requests that it considered, a minor improvement over last year. It fully rejected more than one-third of requests, also a minor improvement over last year, 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.
The White House touted its success under its own analysis of how it performed. It said more employees worked to turn over files that people asked for, and it increased the budget for such efforts by $19 million last year. It said cabinet-level agencies that are directly under the White House's control showed particular improvement. The White House routinely excludes from its assessment instances when it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper under the law, and says under this calculation that it released all or parts of records sought in 93 percent of requests.
"It is not surprising to see more FOIA requests sent in to an administration that has emphasized transparency," White House Spokesman Eric Schultz said. "We're making a strong effort to keep up with that demand by devoting more resources to it."
Even as the Obama administration increased its efforts, people submitted 587,815 requests for information in fiscal 2011 at the 37 agencies reviewed by the AP — about an 8 percent increase over the previous year's figure of 546,445. The administration also agreed more often — in about 25 percent of requests last year — to quickly consider information sought about subjects described as urgent or especially newsworthy. It was the second time in three years that people asked more than half-a-million times for records.
The biggest increases were at offices within the Department of Homeland Security that deal with immigration files. Overall, DHS received more than twice as many requests for records — 175,656 new requests last year — as any other agency. The Defense Department was second with 74,117 new requests. Smaller government offices, such as the White House drug policy office and the Council on Environmental Quality, received only a few dozen requests each.
The surge for immigration records at the Homeland Security Department meant the government ended the year with 98,183 backlogged requests, an increase of nearly 14 percent over the backlog of 86,370 at the start of the year, according to AP's review. DHS itself accounted for 48,493 of those backlogged requests at year's end.
In another improvement, the government less frequently cited any of the nine exemptions in the law that allow it to keep records secret, especially one that shields materials about an agency's internal personnel rules and practices. The Supreme Court in March 2011 issued a ruling that overturned 30 years of precedent and restricted when the government can use the exemption.
The administration also less frequently invoked the "deliberative process" exemption 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 43,731.
At the Justice Department, however — which is responsible for ensuring that agencies comply with Obama's orders to be more transparent — officials invoked the exemption 1,500 times last year, an increase from 1,231 times the previous year.
The Justice Department riled open government advocates last year when it proposed formalizing the practice, in some situations, of federal law enforcement agencies telling people who request records that the government doesn't have the records when it actually does. Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, threatened to block the proposal from ever taking effect. The department eventually abandoned the idea.
Wars, terrorists and spies bucked the trend. During the year when American troops were involved in two wars and a bombing campaign in Libya, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a daring raid, and U.S. drones killed scores of terror suspects and insurgents, the administration more aggressively protected federal files that it said should be shielded due to national security reasons. The government invoked that explanation 4,244 times last year — a significant increase over the 3,615 times it did so in 2010. The CIA, Director of National Intelligence and departments of defense, justice, state and homeland security were responsible for nearly all those cases.
The 37 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 Election Commission, 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, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.
By Associated Press writers Richard Lardner and Ted Bridis.