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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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:08pm

    Rule one of government is don't get caught, and giving out details may break this rule.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:15pm


      And exposing the Government's crimes can get you in jail.

      Land of the free.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        The eejit (profile), 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:10pm

        Re: Re:

        Remember, stealing a loaf of bread, and you get hung, drawn and quartered. Steal billions, and you're either the government or a hero.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 6:08pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Unless the billions stole were the result of downloading a few songs off the Internet. (Note: The billions stole here may or may not actually exist.)

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:40pm


      The Government gets caught all the time.

      Rule one of government is DENY
      Rule two of government is LIE
      Rule three of government is SEE RULE ONE.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    arcan, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:09pm

    Now if only the government could be arrested for breaking it's own laws...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    monkyyy, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:17pm

    its important to note that the higher levels government run on anarchy, its not like congress members burn other congress mans on the stake if they break the bill of rights

    its not like u get fined for corruption or even kicked out of office unless u are pissing off other leaders

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Yawgmoth, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:28pm

    Only about 3 things should EVER be "state secrets/classified/National security". ACTIVE CIA/covert ops missions (and completed ones until 2 or so years after), president/family/foreign dignitaries travel schedules/AF1 flight plans, and the movement/deployment locations of our military hardware

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      monkyyy, 2 Oct 2012 @ 12:34pm


      way to open ended, reading ur email could easily be under the first one, taking bribes the 2nd, and secret prisons(/
      "forced labor" camps) the 3rd

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:18pm

    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...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:28pm


      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!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        William Chambers, 7 Oct 2012 @ 2:17pm

        Re: Re:

        This is an important note. Even going out to for a day in the town, I can rack up a half-dozen or more receipts. It's not always a simple thing to keep track of.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    art guerrilla (profile), 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:24pm

    wheeeeeee ! ! !

    we're sliding into the authoritarian fascism of Empire (tm), ain't it grand ! ! !

    who's watching the watchers ? ? ?
    well, the watchers are watching themselves, ain't they...

    self-policing always ends well (for the police)...

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:42pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    gorehound (profile), 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:45pm

    Not Surprised.
    Time for you to get on the VPN Bandwagon like me.Government likes to spy on its Citizens and throws out 4TH Amendment.
    Government hates to be Open and would rather Stonewall you than give you what is legally owed.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:49pm

    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 administrationís 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).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      monkyyy, 2 Oct 2012 @ 1:57pm


      who runs this system? the highest level of government is always lawless, they can do anything they want, besides something that causes people to over throw them, and they will still retire with their bribes

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Sneeje (profile), 2 Oct 2012 @ 2:04pm


      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Oct 2012 @ 2:27pm

    Government comply with their own law? What country are you from?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 2 Oct 2012 @ 6:06pm

    Grow baby, grow!

    Our wonderful president LOVES big government. This should be a great excuse to add to it, the FOIA agency. Obama's tag line when it comes to government... "Grow baby, grow!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Alan Cordle, 3 Oct 2012 @ 9:05am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Zangetsu (profile), 3 Oct 2012 @ 4:22pm

    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 itís public, it should be just there"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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