In one of his first acts the day he settled into office last January, Barack Obama issued a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act, the 1966 federal law requiring the disclosure of most public documents that has been variously applied by every administration since.
Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft famously interpreted the law to suggest agencies should err on the side of denying records requests that might interfere with national security, privacy or any of FOIA's nine exemptions. The Department of Justice, he said, would defend agencies' decisions to withhold material "unless they lack a sound legal basis."
Obama sought to reverse that logic with a different presumption: "In the face of doubt," his memorandum declared, "openness prevails." To the media organizations responsible for filing many FOIA requests and the open-government advocacy groups that champion that right, this sounded pretty good.
"For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city," Obama said at the time.
But it turns out a year later that his promising words — and the directive that followed soon after from new Attorney General Eric Holder — haven't translated into much concrete change. The National Security Archive at George Washington University this week released its annual audit of federal FOIA compliance, and the report's title alone is discouraging: "Sunshine and Shadows: The Clear Obama Message for Freedom of Information Meets Mixed Results."
The report surveyed 90 federal agencies (by, well, FOIA), and found that many have done nothing to implement Obama's policy shift, and even fewer have improved their document release rates as a result. Thirteen agencies didn't even reply — after five months — to the National Security Archive's request for information on the topic. (Law requires a response, not necessarily the answer, to FOIAs within 20 business days.)
Only four agencies, including Holder's Department of Justice, have improved their release rates in the last year. The audit was looking not only for an increase in the number of documents released (which could simply indicate an increase in the number of overall FOIAs processed), but also a corresponding decrease in denials.
Every agency at least appears to have gotten word of the new Obama and Holder memos, an improvement from the last major policy change in 2002. Then, "a few agencies responded by asking 'What Ashcroft memo?'"
"But the evidence of concrete changes," the audit concludes, "is almost as mixed as under the Ashcroft memo."
Out of the 90 agencies, 13 provided documentation that they had made concrete changes to their FOIA guidelines, including publishing expanded information online to eliminate the need for some FOIA requests in the first place. Fourteen agencies merely expanded their FOIA training to inform employees about the new presumption of openness. The bulk of respondents, 35 agencies, had no records indicating they had done anything at all about the new policies.
This last group includes some of the most frequently FOIA'd departments in the government — the CIA, the Treasury Department and the SEC. Also in this group was, surprisingly, the National Science Foundation.
In one other troubling sign, the audit found that some information requests as dusty as 18 years old are still languishing in the system.
Sunshine advocates could draw two conclusions from the report: The Obama administration hasn't made overhauling the FOIA system quite the priority it suggested a year ago, or making that priority come true will take much longer than a year.
Suggest the report's authors: "One year is too early to render a final judgment on how far President Obama can move the government toward openness, but this Audit finds that much more pressure and leadership will be necessary."
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