Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Freedom of Information: Despite Obama's directive, few agencies show positive change

President Obama signs his Freedom of Information Act Memo on January 21, 2009.

Despite President Barack Obama's and Attorney General Eric Holder's 2009 memoranda calling for reform in government agencies' administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the latest government-wide FOIA Audit released today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University found:
  • Ancient requests--as old as 18 years--still persist in the FOIA system.
  • A minority of agencies have responded to the Obama and Holder Memos with concrete changes in their FOIA practices.
  • Only four out of 28 agencies reporting--including Holder's own Justice Department--show releases up and denials down under the FOIA.

The Audit, which is based on data obtained from government agencies through FOIA requests filed by the Archive in September 2009, found that federal agencies had a wide range of responses to the Obama and Holder Memos. Some agencies (13 out of 90) implemented concrete changes in practice as a result of the memos; some (14 out of 90) have made changes in staff training; and still others (11 out of 90) have merely circulated and discussed the memos. The remaining agencies (52) either told the Archive that they have no records that demonstrate how they implemented the Obama and Holder Memos or did not respond at all to the FOIA request.

The report also shows several agencies have severe backlogs in processing FOIA requests, with some requests as old as 18 years. Presidential Libraries are facing some of the greatest challenges processing old requests--the libraries for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all have requests pending from the first year they began accepting records requests from the public.

National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton said the Audit makes it clear that too many government agencies are falling short of the goals set out by President Obama. "It is time for a 'No FOIA Request Left Behind' initiative," Blanton said.

Meredith Fuchs, the Archive's General Counsel, said the Audit shows the Obama Administration and federal agencies have their work cut out for them on the transparency front. "One year is too early to render a final judgment on how far President Obama can move the government toward openness, but this Audit finds that much more pressure and leadership will be necessary, both inside and outside the government," Fuchs said.

About the National Security Archive

The National Security Archive is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at George Washington University. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Archive also serves as a repository of government records on a wide range of topics pertaining to the national security, foreign, intelligence, and economic policies of the United States.

Previous National Security Archive Audits and Knight Open Government Surveys:

Mixed Signals, Mixed Results: How President Bush's Executive Order on FOIA Failed to Deliver
(March 16, 2008)

40 Years of FOIA, 20 Years of Delay
(July 2, 2007)

File Not Found: 10 Years After E-FOIA, Most Federal Agencies are Delinquent
(March 12, 2007)

Pseudo-Secrets: A Freedom of Information Audit of the U.S. Government's Policies on Sensitive Unclassified Information
(March 14, 2006)

A FOIA Request Celebrates Its 17th Birthday: A Report on Federal Agency FOIA Backlog
(March 12, 2006)

Source: National Security Archive

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