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FOIA watchdogs: Exemptions up 33 percent under Obama

Dec. 15, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
A study examined FOIA performance at 15 major agencies in fiscal 2008 and 2010. It found the nine statutory exemptions were used 33 percent more often in fiscal 2010  the first full fiscal year under President Obama, above  than in fiscal 2008, the last full year of President Bush's administration.
A study examined FOIA performance at 15 major agencies in fiscal 2008 and 2010. It found the nine statutory exemptions were used 33 percent more often in fiscal 2010 the first full fiscal year under President Obama, above than in fiscal 2008, the last full year of President Bush's administration. (File photo / Getty Images)

Some federal agencies are relying more heavily on exemptions to withhold information under the Freedom of Information Act, two watchdog groups said in an analysis released Thursday.

The study examined FOIA performance at 15 major agencies in fiscal 2008 and 2010. It found the nine statutory exemptions were used 33 percent more often in fiscal 2010 the first full fiscal year under President Obama than in fiscal 2008, the last full year of President Bush's administration.

Without changes to the "culture of secrecy" still prevalent at many agencies, the Obama administration will fail to meet its goal of being the most transparent and accountable in history, said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which produced the report with OpenTheGovernment.org. The Justice Department, which sets FOIA policy for the rest of the government, was one of the agencies citing some exemptions more frequently, the study found. The Treasury Department showed the most significant decline in its use of exemptions.

The groups found, however, that agencies had generally made major progress in cutting their FOIA request backlogs, with the cumulative total dropping from about 126,200 at the end of fiscal 2008 to 64,500 at the same point in 2010.

At the 15 agencies reviewed, the overall number of requests increased by 11 percent during the two-year period. In an e-mail, Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona called it unsurprising that agencies would assert more exemptions as more requests are processed. She also said agencies are increasing the number of requests in which they release at least some information, as opposed to making full denials.

The analysis also questioned the accuracy of the data that the government uses to assess agencies' handling of FOIA requests. The average processing times published in the Interior Department's 2010 annual report, for example, were contradicted by figures listed on FOIA.gov, an online clearinghouse Justice launched in March , the study found.

Justice had already found and corrected some of the problems flagged in the report, Talamona said. At the same time, she said, the department "recognizes that the [FOIA.gov] site is new and evolving and is committed to making improvements."

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