The Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.
The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.
It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged.
Its backlog of unanswered requests at year’s end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000. It also cut by 375, or about 9 percent, the number of full-time employees across government paid to look for records. That was the fewest number of employees working on the issue in five years.
The government’s new figures, published Tuesday, covered all requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2014 under the Freedom of Information law, which is heralded globally as a model for transparent government. They showed that despite disappointments and failed promises by the White House to make meaningful improvements in the way it releases records, the law was more popular than ever. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The U.S. spent a record $434 million trying to keep up. It also spent about $28 million on lawyers’ fees to keep records secret.
The new figures showed the government responded to 647,142 requests, a 4 percent decrease over the previous year. It more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 250,581 cases or 39 percent of all requests. Sometimes, the government censored only a few words or an employee’s phone number, but other times it completely marked out nearly every paragraph on pages.
On 215,584 other occasions, the government said it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.
In nearly 1 in 3 cases, when someone challenged under appeal the administration’s initial decision to censor or withhold files, the government reconsidered and acknowledged it was at least partly wrong. That was the highest reversal rate in at least five years.
The government said the average time it took to answer each records request ranged from one day to more than 2.5 years. More than half of federal agencies took longer to answer requests last year than the previous year.
The State Department, currently in the news over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private e-mail account, scored significantly worse than any other agency. It only processed 23 percent of all requests and took, on average, 540 days to fill simple FOIA requests (the law dictates that it should take 20 days).
The White House touted its success under its own analysis. It routinely excludes from its assessment instances when it couldn’t find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper under the law, and said under this calculation it released all or parts of records in 91 percent of requests — still a record low since President Barack Obama took office using the White House’s own math.
The government’s responsiveness under the open records law is an important measure of its transparency. Under the law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. It cited such exceptions a record 554,969 times last year.
Under the president’s instructions, the U.S. should not withhold or censor government files merely because they might be embarrassing, but federal employees last year regularly misapplied the law. In emails that AP obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration about who pays for Michelle Obama’s expensive dresses, the agency blacked-out a sentence under part of the law intended to shield personal, private information, such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers or home addresses. But it failed to censor the same passage on a subsequent page.
The sentence: “We live in constant fear of upsetting the WH (White House).”
The U.S. released its new figures during Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information.
This is the second report this week to shine a light on the government’s transparency under FOIA. A Tuesday report from the Center for Effective Government, an open government advocacy group, analyzed 15 major agencies and found that most received unsatisfactory marks when it comes to processing requests, maintaining its disclosure rules, and updating its FOIA websites.
The White House has also faced criticism this week for formalizing a rule from the Bush administration that exempts the White House’s Office of Administration from FOIA requests.