Still All Talk: 19 Of 20 Presidential Cabinet Agencies Ignore Requirements Of The Freedom Of Information Act

from the freedom's-just-another-word-for-*********** dept

Despite having 45 years to get “warmed up,” the era of “open government” may take several more cycles before it becomes a reality. President Obama promised an unprecedented level of openness, but to date, the level of openness remains pretty much unchanged from his predecessors'.

An analysis of open-government requests filed by Bloomberg News shows that most cabinet-level agencies would rather break the law than comply with the requirements of the Freedom of Information act. And by “most,” Bloomberg means “nearly all.”

Nineteen of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information: The cost of travel by top officials. In all, just eight of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act.

The Bloomberg analysis also tracked the timeliness of information requests, pointing out that fast turn-time was referred to as “an essential component of transparency” by Attorney General Eric Holder. Bloomberg was seeking disclosure on out-of-town travel expenses generated by top officials.

About half of the 57 agencies eventually disclosed the out-of-town travel expenses generated by their top official by Sept. 14, most of them well past the legal deadline.

The travel costs generated by some other Obama officials –Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano — also remain undisclosed.

A request made in June for the travel records of Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, will remain unfulfilled for more than a year, according to a federal official involved in the case.

“We really appreciate your patience in this matter. The estimated completion date is July 2013,” wrote Chris Barnes, a State Department FOIA official, in a Sept. 24 e-mail. Under FOIA, the department is required to offer a timetable for delayed responses.

Travel expense reports aren't exactly the most arcane records. Every business has them and while the government may have more to track, it's hard to believe that requesting this data on only the top official in each department should take longer than the 20-day period. In fact, it's hard to believe that this data needs to be requested at all.

Eric Newton, senior adviser at the Knight Foundation, a Miami-based group that promotes citizen engagement, said agencies have no excuse not to rapidly disclose travel costs.

“In a 24/7 world, it should take two days, it should take two hours,” Newton said. “If it’s public, it should be just there.”

It looks as if FOIA requests, no matter what their reason, are either being stalled or given a very low priority in certain departments. Whatever can't be held off indefinitely is being avoided completely through abuse of exemptions. The Obama administration flexed its exemption muscle during its first year, deploying 50% more than the Bush administration. Since then, the numbers have died down a bit, but there's no reason to start celebrating a “new era of openness.” This simply means a drop from a high of 466,402 down to 369,417 exemptions in 2011.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, a majority of these exemptions (231,634) were deployed by the Department of Homeland Security. (The next two are the Dept. of Defense [30,861] and the Dept. of Justice [23,916].) With the handy ability to cite the interests of “national security” at the drop of a hat, the DHS can turn down nearly any request. This hasn't stopped the public from trying, however. The DHS still receives the most requests but it's hard to believe it's receiving 10 times the number of requests the Dept. of Justice is, making its exemption percentage that much more egregious.

Even with exemption deployment being the default setting for a few agencies, there are currently no exemptions that apply to the requested travel information from disclosure. A slight delay could be expected for redaction efforts, but as Bloomberg points out, other agencies redacted personal data and still managed to respond in a timely fashion.

Responsive agencies were able to redact personal details within the FOIA time period. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the chief regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, provided the travel expense records for Acting Director Edward DeMarco’s six trips out of town within 15 days of the filing.

DeMarco’s trips cost $5,653.29, the documents show. Personal information such as his Social Security number and home address were blacked-out in the file.

Some of these delays can also be chalked up to good old fashioned bureaucracy, something which nevers seems to go out of style in DC. The administration is working on a streamlining plan for the FOIA process, but it's being rolled out at a very bureaucratic pace.

The administration acknowledged systemic issues with the FOIA process when the Office of Management and Budget issued guidelines Aug. 24 to all federal agencies on how to streamline government information. The memo called for all government information to be stored in an electronic format by December 2019 — almost three years after the end of a potential second Obama term.

A glacial pace only a bureaucrat could love combined with what Bloomberg refers to as a “culture of obfuscation” means that requesting something as simple as travel records becomes an exercise in near futility. The Freedom of Information Act has been around since 1966 which means that a.) this isn't just this administration's problem and b.) the government has had more than four decades to make the process run more smoothly. One can only conclude that the government has very little interest in transparency, no matter what promises were made during the “honeymoon” period.

Fortunately, many more entities like the ACLU and the EFF are working to make the government comply with its own law. The process is arduous and far from satisfying, but without a continual push, the government will continue to allow the public to pay for the “privilege” of being told it's “none of their business.” Oh, and it should be noted that after I finished this, Mike informed me that he’s been waiting for months for the response to a FOIA he filed which, by law, should have been completed back in July. The reason given by the agency in question for the delay: give us more time, because we only have two people working on all FOIA requests.

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Comments on “Still All Talk: 19 Of 20 Presidential Cabinet Agencies Ignore Requirements Of The Freedom Of Information Act”

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Anonymous Coward says:

It is quite ironic to have a president who actually did provide the framework for greater openness and his administration not following it.

That is hyprocracy on a completely different planet.

The way to provide more openness goes through time and the way to avoid “openness theater” (Kirk primarily atm.) is actually to extend the reaction times in general on FOIAs (system is unrealistic given the current procedures for certain government agencies), but create a priority-system to assure that informations cannot get conciously delayed on subjects pertaining to ongoing legislative procedures. Also a penal clause is severely lacking…

Anonymous Coward says:


Just to clarify: Travel costs are pretty hard to document correctly and it takes a lot of time for the politician to actually get the documentation to the correct people. If you travel 100 times in a year, live on hotels, have dinners, have meetings, use a taxi, use a plane etc. it is easy to hit well above 1000 small notes you have to provide to the office for later disclosure under FOIA (and while bosses keep those reciepts for tax purposes and they loose the company a little money for each missing, the politicians will take a hit on popularity on this account). I do not envy the politicians and their secretaries on that part!

Anonymous Coward says:

How many requests are made

This simply means a drop from a high of 466,402 down to 369,417 exemptions in 2011.

466,402 exemptions?? How many requests were made? 15 days to respond to the request is minuscule if there are this many requests. That’s over 2000 requests per day if EVERY request is exempted!!! Imagine the man power necessary for that.

Although I agree that we need transparency in government, we can’t complain that the government costs a lot if we expect they need to fulfill all of these requests within 15 days. How does any work actually get done. I’m sure a lot of these requests are nuisance requests fishing for the latest “news” story. If my company had to spend all it’s time filling out paperwork, we’d go bankrupt.

Anonymous Coward says:

There should be a penalty system for administration agencies that do not comply with the law.
Either 1. Personal financial responsibility (personal fines against the agency head)
-or- 2. Cost the current administration?s political party electoral votes, -1 electoral vote for each 1st time violation and -10 electoral votes for each subsequent violation.
-or- 3. Automatic termination of the agency head after a certain number of violations (I would say 1).

Sneeje (profile) says:


You know, I struggle with this one. On the one hand, I feel strongly about transparency. On the other hand, I know what most government agencies have to do and what they have to do it with.

a) very few records fall into a category where one person can sit down, easily find them, be assured and confident that they have found all of them, and package them up to send to the requestor. These efforts are highly manual and require multiple people involved to make certain they are correct.
b) over the last ten years, many federal agencies have been asked to do more with much less. This is not bad, but it usually has meant a shrinkage of staff through attrition.

As much as I want transparency, I think we have to acknowledge that there aren’t people just sitting around waiting for their boss to tell them to take 5 minutes, go get those records, and send them to the requestor. The resources and time have to come from somewhere and they have to do so at the expense of some other activity.

Hiring people dedicated to this effort doesn’t help that much, because the requests are so ad-hoc that they would often have no idea how to find the information.

Alan Cordle (user link) says:

on a local level

Earlier this year, I requested the travel records for my own department at Portland Community College. Here is the response:

Apr 17
Mr. Cordle:

I agreed to get back with you about timeline and cost of your request. Here is an estimate of timeline and cost to fulfill this request. There are several variables.

Most (but not all) of the travel was paid by the library. We have identified the Travel Authorization Forms (TAF’s) for the period paid by the library. They are:

FY12 to date: 4
FY11: 16
FY10: 11
FY09: 10
FY08: 16
FY07 1/1/07-6/30/07: 20

FY12 and 11 documents still reside at the Downtown Center and we estimate 2 hours staff time to produce them in either paper or image format. Estimated cost in staff time and materials: $60.00. We can provide these with 2 day notice.

Older fiscal year documents are located in the Records Center at Sylvania. Estimated cost to produce these four older fiscal years is $225. The records center requires a one week notice to provide the documents.

There is a small chance the Staff Development office may have contributed funds for travel by a library employee. If the library did not pay for a portion of the trip, that travel can only be identified by sending a list of library employee names to the staff development office to manually check the employee list against a list of employees receiving support. They do not track the department for which the recipient works. The cost to identify any library recipient receiving travel support by staff development is estimated at $320. If any are found, the cost of producing those documents would be an additional $12 per TAF.

Please let me know if you should proceed with any of all of this request. If you decide to do any or all of the requests, PCC will need a check of the respective amounts before we procced.

Thank you.
Wing-Kit D Chung,
VP Administrative Services
Voice 971-722-4250
Cell: 503-780-1634
Fax 971-722-4960
P. O. Box 19000
Portland, Oregon 97280

Zangetsu (profile) says:

At least one government is open

The Alberta government is publishing all of its travel expenses ( although this is as a result of a scandal earlier in the year with regard to a high level member of the government abusing his travel expenses.

But as Eric Newton said “If it?s public, it should be just there”

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