This week is Sunshine Week, “a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information,” so it’s a great time for the National Security Archive to release its Freedom of Information Act Audit. (The National Security Archive, I’ve just learned, is located here at George Washington University, but is “an independent non-governmental research institute and library.”)
The audit’s findings are troubling. Although President Obama issued a memorandum calling for greater disclosure in January 2009, and Attorney General Eric Holder issued FOIA guidelines two months later, most agencies haven’t improved much when it comes to FOIA requests. The Archives news release summarizes the disappointing numbers:
The Audit, which is based on data obtained from government agencies through FOIA requests filed by the Archive in September 2009, found that federal agencies had a wide range of responses to the Obama and Holder Memos. Some agencies (13 out of 90) implemented concrete changes in practice as a result of the memos; some (14 out of 90) have made changes in staff training; and still others (11 out of 90) have merely circulated and discussed the memos. The remaining agencies (52) either told the Archive that they have no records that demonstrate how they implemented the Obama and Holder Memos or did not respond at all to the FOIA request.
The report also shows several agencies have severe backlogs in processing FOIA requests, with some requests as old as 18 years.
The Department of Labor was among the agencies that failed to respond to the Archives’ FOIA request for information pertaining to implementation of the Holder memo. EPA reported that it has changed its training to emphasize the new policies and that “draft documents and e-mails will now be withheld only when a foreseeable harm will result from the disclosure” (that’s the Archives’ wording). The agency still seems to be working through a substantial backlog of FOIA requests, though; EPA was on the list of “Ten Oldest Pending FOIA Requests,” with requests submitted between May 17, 2004 and March 8, 2005 still pending. (The National Archives and Department of Defense lead that list, with pending requests dating back to the early 1990s.)
While the results of this FOIA audit are disappointing, The New York Times’ Eric Lichtblau notes that the Obama administration has made strides in other aspects of transparency:
Mr. Obama’s administration has posted White House visitor logs online, it has made public the once-classified memorandums on torture policies in the George W. Bush administration, and it has developed an internal system for archiving its own unclassified e-mail messages.
And, Lichtblau continues, federal agencies are being pushed to report on their FOIA procedures:
In final reports due by Monday, Freedom of Information officers at agencies across the executive branch were to inform the Justice Department about steps they have taken to ease public requests. The administration planned to release a broader report on government openness next month as well.
FOIA is a crucial tool for helping interested citizens learn more about what their government is doing and allowing journalists to perform their watchdog function. I hope this report will indeed come out next month, and will demonstrate a true dedication to improving FOIA access.