Despite transparency pledge, federal agencies rejected 200,000 document requests

When President Barack Obama pledged unprecedented openness in government on his second day in office, his Justice Department dispatched a missive laying down the new rules for all federal agencies.

The Freedom of Information Act, the primary law guaranteeing the public access to government information, “should be administered with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails,” the decree declared in January 2009.

But four years later, the Justice Department is facing uncomfortable questions from Congress about its own record of transparency and its stewardship over the openness of other agencies.

In a rare bipartisan inquiry, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are demanding to know why the Justice Department’s own release of information under FOIA has slowed, and why requesters of information are facing unnecessary fees and long backlogs.

“The Committee seeks information about a number of issues including outdated FOIA regulations, exorbitant and possibly illegal fee assessments, FOIA backlogs, the excessive use of exemptions and dispute resolution services,” Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wrote in a letter that sent DOJ 23 questions about its transparency.

The lawmakers noted that federal agencies made more than 30,000 full denials and more than 171,000 partial denials in 2011, the last year that statistics were available. The Department’s annual report shows federal agencies rejected in part or in full 32.2 percent of the FOIAs it processed in 2011, up from 30 percent in 2010. 

In addition, more than 83,490 requests were backlogged in 2011, up from 69,526 the year before.  The Homeland Security Department was the worst offender at backlogging requests, the representatives said.  Despite receiving only 27 percent of FOIA requests in 2011, the agency accounted for 50 percent of government-wide backlog.

The lawmakers also noted that Justice itself increased the number of times it rejected FOIA requests under Exemption 5, designed to protect internal deliberations inside an agency. “DOJ itself increased the number of times it invoked Exemption 5, for deliberative process, from 1,231 times in 2010 to 1,500 times in 2011,” it said.

The Justice Department did not return calls Wednesday seeking comment.

The Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966, provides any member of the public or media the opportunity to get information and documents from the government.  The few exceptions usually pertain to information considered sensitive to national security or ongoing law enforcement investigations.  The federal government received just over 644,000 FOIA requests in 2011, data showed.

But lawmakers are concerned that Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) hasn’t been taking the lead in ensuring compliance with the law.

OIP was instructed to make sure other government agencies have kept their FOIA guidelines current, but the letter said 62 out of 99 agencies haven’t updated their FOIA policies since 2009. In fact, 31 of those agencies haven’t updated their policies in over a decade.

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