Even though President Barack Obama promised an open and transparent government when he took office, a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press shows the Obama administration more often than ever censored or denied access to government files last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
Last year, the government denied access to government documents on national security grounds a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase from the previous year and more than double Obama’s first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times.
The AP analysis also found that the government more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 244,675 cases or 36 percent of all requests.
“In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office,” AP writes.
“I’m concerned the growing trend toward relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public’s right to know,” said Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It becomes too much of a temptation. If you screw up in government, just mark it top secret.”
White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Shultz said government agencies are making it a priority to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. “Over the past five years, federal agencies have worked aggressively to improve their responsiveness to FOIA requests, applying a presumption of openness and making it a priority to respond quickly,” Schultz said.
Meanwhile, the National Security Archives released a separate report this week, which found that nearly half of all federal agencies have not updated their Freedom of Information Act regulations to comply with Congress’s 2007 FOIA amendments – some of which include adding new online journalists in the fee waiver category for the media and ordering agencies to cooperate with the new FOIA ombudsman in the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS).
Similarly, the Center for Effective Government also found that federal agencies are struggling to effectively implement the FOIA. “Many agencies could easily raise their grades by making some commonsense adjustments in the way they process requests, by making disclosure a priority for agency staff, and by improving search features and user interfaces on the disclosure sections of their websites,” said Sean Moulton, director of Open Government Policy.
Moulton concluded, “By identifying current best practices and agencies that score well, as well as existing shortcomings, we hope to encourage public officials to continue to improve the policies and practices of their agencies to ensure the public’s right to know is guaranteed.”