For All The Promises Of Transparency, Obama Administration Responding To Fewer FOIA Requests

from the but-of-course dept

One of the first moves that President Obama made upon taking office was to tell federal agencies to default to “allow” when it came to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and only deny in specific situations. It looks like that’s not really happening. A new report points out that while the number of FOIA requests shot up last year, the government actually responded to many fewer of those requests. More than one-third of requests were refused. That’s not the transparency we expected.

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Comments on “For All The Promises Of Transparency, Obama Administration Responding To Fewer FOIA Requests”

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49 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

As a general rule each federal agency has historically had only a reletively small number of personnel assigned to their respective FOIA offices. Thus, it is not especially surprising to learn that responses to FOIA requests may have slowed down (acknowledgements of a request are answered in a manner, but actually digging through records in not a trivial task). This is much like the PTO. As it gets flooded with applications it too tends to slow down and a backlog created.

It is also not surprising that the percent of requests being denied in whole or in part appears to be increasing. FOIA has a series of exemptions, and it seems likely that with more requests being filed many of them may be pushing the boundaries of these various exemptions.

While it would be nice to have all requests handled immediately, the quantity of records to be searched and reviewed and the limited number of persons currently available to do so may very well be stretching the system at this time to its limits.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Perhaps some day in the future, but at this point in time “paper” abounds. Moreover, whether in digital of paper form, each document does have to be individually reviewed, and redacted if need be, before it can be released under a FOIA request.

It is worthwhile to note that FOIA personnel are not records custodians. Each time a request is received a notice goes out to the agency as a whole requesting a records search.

One of the abuses associated with FOIA is a company trying to scour government records concerning competitors, oftentimes with particular focus being on cost and pricing data. Whenever this happens the competitor is notified (thus adding some delay) and offered the opportunity to contest the disclosure of any documents it deems particularly sensitive, such as trade secrets, proprietary information, etc.

I guess the point to be made (and I do so having been involved in more FOIA matters than I care to count) is that the process is quite time consuming and labor intensive. Only in a very few circumstances can a request for documents be turned around and forwarded to the requester in a matter of days.

John Doe says:

We didn't expect hope and change...

While the suckers who voted for Obama may have expected hope and change, those of us who didn’t vote for him knew better. The guy had no track record and that was calculated on his part. Why anyone would vote for a President who purposefully took no stands so nothing could be held against him later is beyond me.

CommonSense (profile) says:

Re: We didn't expect hope and change...

The alternative would have been one who purposefully took stands on either side of an argument based on which side would make him look better at the time, and his backup, who had a track record of being a corrupt leader.

People who voted for Obama didn’t ‘expect hope and change’. They didn’t like what they had, so they ‘hoped’ for ‘change’. The alternative offered no hope, and you’re a fool if you think we’d be any better off today if we had gone down that road.

CommonSense (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: We didn't expect hope and change...

Are you trying to say that it would have been better to vote for someone you knew was going to screw you over, instead of someone you didn’t know for sure would?? In what world is that a good thing???

Today’s republican party is not fit to run the country, that’s been proven. Now, Obama is doing his best to prove that the democrats aren’t fit to run the country either. If voters finally learn this lesson, I think this is much better than having voted McCain into office to ruin the country, and continue letting people believe that the democrats could make it better…

Overcast (profile) says:

Agree 100% Dark Helmet, lol – good one.

Transparency….

lol, this administration? The same one that is sicking the DoJ on Wikileaks?

Get real.

The only ‘transparency’ this administration wants is in regards to the citizens/others, not itself.

Mr. President won’t/can’t even produce a legitimate birth certificate to stop the “he’s not a citizen rhetoric” – and they talk about transparency. What a laugh.

Regardless of where you stand on the above, if you or I apply for a job that requires a government security clearance – go ahead and tell them you won’t show your birth certificate. Hell – say that when you try to get a State ID or driver’s license. Obviously, if Obama has a driver’s license, he knows where his birth certificate is.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Mr. President won’t/can’t even produce a legitimate birth certificate to stop the “he’s not a citizen rhetoric” – and they talk about transparency. What a laugh.”

Ugh, I’m all for a good conspiracy theory, but I hate that one. It’s been dealt with so thoroughly that I can’t even believe people are still talking about it.

Again, I don’t mean to criticize too harshly; I’m into well thought out conspiracy theories. But that one is a total non-starter to me….

Overcast (profile) says:

While it would be nice to have all requests handled immediately, the quantity of records to be searched and reviewed and the limited number of persons currently available to do so may very well be stretching the system at this time to its limits.

But they took the time and effort to push for the conversion of medical records to electronic – why not government records?

Ahab says:

Re: Re:

You misunderstand. I work in the “Health” industry; the medical records are being set up for easy government retrieval so that FedGov can grant medical care by examining statistics. Drug companies, insurance companies and FegGov all love the idea of statistical medicine. As for individual records, well … if you examine “The Health Care Bill” you’ll find out that the agency in charge of those is the IRS.

Luckily, we will not have to worry about the data being lost in departmental bureaucratic fiefdoms; soon the only department that will matter is the DHS.

Don’t worry. It’s our government. They have our best interests at heart. The country was founded on trusting the government. Go back to sleep.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Type of requests...

i’m all for conspiracy theories, but in all honesty, even i’ve become disillusioned by this administration and i voted for him. i have no clue who i’m supposed to vote for at the next election. the republicans want to kill anything that would give funding towards any sort of science or education and this administration is… well… i don’t even know how to classify it. it may unfortunately still be less bad than the republicans, but that’s a terrible reason to vote for someone.

coldbrew says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Type of requests...

Obama was the first time I’ve voted for a major candidate in one of the two main parties since Dole (I was young). How can we get rid of this two-party bias nonsense? Can you write a book about a conspiracy surrounding this two-parties_is_choice thing? Many other western countries have 5 prominent parities, correct? Does this start at the local level?

Purposed tile: “The chronicles of the douche and the turd”

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Type of requests...

“Can you write a book about a conspiracy surrounding this two-parties_is_choice thing?”

Hmmm, not a bad theme for a conspiracy thriller, actually. And there’s a lot of factual backstory to fill in, with the banking and defense industries backing both parties and belonging to these little quasi-govt. clubs attended by members of both parties.

Proposed title: Two For One, And One For All

Joe Publius says:

FOIA = Window dressing?

I never expect people in power to be transparent. It’s easier to exert your power if you think you can keep the excesses or failures a secret. No one should really be surprised when a reformer on the campaign trail becomes just one more supporter of the system once they become a part of it.

IMO FOIA is just a kind of window dressing anyway. Did anyone really think that it would lead to a geniune ability to obtain information that may truly be pertinent to a healthy democracy by exposing corruption or ineptitude? The only way that kind of trouble gets exposed is through whistleblowers, and we all know what happens to whistleblowers.

Overcast (profile) says:

“Mr. President won’t/can’t even produce a legitimate birth certificate to stop the “he’s not a citizen rhetoric” – and they talk about transparency. What a laugh.”

Ugh, I’m all for a good conspiracy theory, but I hate that one. It’s been dealt with so thoroughly that I can’t even believe people are still talking about it.

Again, I don’t mean to criticize too harshly; I’m into well thought out conspiracy theories. But that one is a total non-starter to me….

We are talking about transparency here. All other issues aside.. it’s very un-transparent.

Isn’t that much obvious from the rhetoric is started up? What was the big deal about that anyway? The big deal was the LACK of transparency, nothing else.

It was evident day one, anyone who expected anything else was fooling them self.

I like the name calling too 🙂 We need a ‘jingle word’ for name calling trolls.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Meh, the person in charge of the birth records in Hawaii certified it, produced the modern short form version of the birth record, and cannot legally release the birth record orginal w/o Obama’s permission. I see no reason to expect Obama to release that anymore than McCain, which is to say not at all.

Now…you want to discuss his belonging to certain quasi-governmental groups like the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission? I’m right there with you. An odd number of Bonesmen, a group with specific ties to Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati? Hell yes, I’m on board.

I just hate the birther issue because it’s meaningless. It seems like one of those conspiracy theories created for the fun of it, rather than anything meaningful of substantive….

And transparency in govt. is one thing. If some random person asked me to give them my birth certificate, I’d tell them to go outside and play hide-and-go-fuck-themselves….

🙂

ts says:

Re: i knew it

But McCain isn’t a citizen either because he was born in Panama!!! But no one cares about that because he’s a white republican.. doesn’t get more American than that, right?

Seriously.. our elections are exactly like that southpark episode where they voted for a new mascot. We’re always choosing between a giant douche and a turd sandwich. When a real candidate comes along, they are not invited to debates, not discussed by the mass media, and don’t even make it on the ballot. So it really doesn’t matter who you vote because they’re all pretty much the same.

xs (profile) says:

This post doesn't match the sentiment in the source article

While the headline and the wording here makes it looks like the source article is criticizing Obama for not been more open, the article itself is most certainly not critical, in fact, even praised Obama administration on some point.

Also, let’s put the numbers in some context here, shall we? In the article, it stated:

“The administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests, 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,”

So the article is lumping everything together, where we are really only concerned about those that administration refused to respond to for no legitamate reason.

The post here also made no mention about improvements in some critical area, such as when the article mentioned:

“Perrilli said the Justice Department released full FOIA records 42 percent of the time last year, up from 36 percent in 2008”

Also there are no mention here for comments questioning the FOIA processing number as a metric to use, or the praises in the article, such as

“Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists? government secrecy project, wondered whether ?FOIA processing? is the right metric of focus.

?The ability to engage on matters of controversy, that?s really what we?re interested in when we ask for transparency. We?re not asking for piles of paper,? said Aftergood, who files dozens of FOIA requests annually.

Still, he has noticed ?improvements in FOIA processing? under the Obama administration. And he said the administration is responsible for some ?epochal? disclosures.

?For the first time last year we were given an unclassified description of the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal,? he said. ?That is something we have not seen for over a half of a century. We have been banging on the door for 20 years or longer for that.?

And last month, the government disclosed, for the first time, its intelligence budget request ? $55 billion for next year.

?I sued the CIA in 1999 asking for total intelligence budget request. They fought back and I lost the lawsuit. The court agreed that this would damage national security,? Aftergood said. ?Within the world of secrecy, these are epochal changes. They are entirely to the administration?s credit.?”

So, I’m afraid Techdirt, in this case at least, has not behaved in an objective and credible manner.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This post doesn't match the sentiment in the source article

I noticed the same thing as well. When you looked at the reasons for the decreases (including the requesting party not wanting to pay for copies), you start to see a trend.

There is great potential here too that at least some of the increase in requests is for information that cannot be released. Some people thought the arrival of Obama would mean that there would be no secrets, and that everything is free game. It isn’t that way at all, things that were not able to be disclosed before still cannot be disclosed today.

However, as you noted, it appears that the Obama administration has worked hard to make available either sanitized versions of things that were previously not available, or have pulled certain documents away from others to allow them to be available for FOIA requests.

Sadly, it appears that Mike is politically against Obama for whatever reason. I don’t understand as the Republicans would have much time for Mike’s liberal “share like hippies” message. The Obama administration has done a lot of work in many areas, things are very different from how they were under the Bush administration, and yet we are suppose to think that things are worse.

I wonder if Mike is a Tea Bagger.

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