The Obama administration manages a "hobbled and broken" FOIA system, according to a report that the House Oversight Committee released Jan. 11
The staff report examines breakdowns, redactions and delays in the FOIA process throughout multiple agencies and lays blame squarely on the White House for what it calls a “culture of secrecy” and red tape.
Related: Read the report
“When President Obama took office he promised an ‘unprecedented level of openness in government.’ This report demonstrates that is not the case,” Committee chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said in a statement.
“Backlogs of FOIA claims have more than doubled since 2009 and agencies are sitting on piles of unfulfilled document requests. Instead of the open and transparent government promised, this administration is playing a game of hide the document from the American people.”
The report comes on the heels of a blistering Jan. 7 committee hearing where Chaffetz and other committee members chastised agency heads for delays in disclosing document requests from Congress.
The State Department, among the agencies criticized in both the new report and the hearing, also was the subject of an OIG report last week that found the Office of the Secretary’s Executive Secretariat often did not meet statutory or regulatory requirements for completeness or timeliness.
The Oversight Committee report noted that the Department of Justice often awarded agencies high FOIA response scores despite the fact that information requested was rarely returned.
The report found that while DOJ noted “that 91 percent of requests reviewed for disclosure were released in whole or part,” up to 70 percent of requests were withheld or not reviewed. Only 28 percent of requesters received all responsive records and information requested.
The root of the quagmire, the report said, results from an added layer of review stipulated by White House counsel that has spread to the agencies and has caused a wealth of delays and retractions in many FOIA reports.
Standing in contrast to President Obama’s January 2009 executive order calling for more FOIA transparency, the report cites an April 15, 2009 memo from White House counsel Gregory Craig that instructs all executive agencies to consult with the White House Counsel’s Office on document requests that may involve information with “White House equity”, which remains in effect.
“Despite a public assertion that agencies should promptly respond and that the disclosure decision should not be based on personal interests, on direction from the White House, agencies routinely delay responses to allow for an extra layer of review by those persons with the greatest concerns about embarrassment and revealing failures,” the report said.
Stories of delays, frequent claims of exemptions, excessive backlogs of requests and extensive redactions litter the report, which looks at the roadblocks requesters have had to navigate to get FOIA information from the Department of Homeland Security, EPA, DOJ and other agencies.
The report also cites a Syracuse University study that submitted identical FOIA requests to 21 agencies for a listing of all FOIA requests received from between October 2012 and the end of December 2014.
The study found that after four months only seven agencies had responded, while another four were making efforts to respond, leaving the remaining 10 were delinquent in their statutorily-required response. Ultimately, the study found three agencies failed to respond at all, while others acknowledged requests, but didn’t respond or “provided records that were clearly unresponsive.”
The report calls for new legislation to establish added requirements on agencies to ensure FOIA compliance moving forward.
“As this report outlines, obfuscation comes in many forms: impermissible delays, exorbitant fees, improper use of exemptions, and denial by never-ending referrals are just a few,” it said. “Nothing makes government more accountable than making its actions open and transparent to those who are paying the bills. Structural reform is necessary to ensure the FOIA tool works as intended.”
Ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., took issue with the report, though, calling it a partisan attack and noted that it hadn't received any kind of committee markup.
“Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress starved agencies of resources as FOIA requests increased to record levels, and then they act surprised that there are backlogs," Cummings said in a statement. He also referenced the FOIA Act, which was headed to the House floor this week and called for greater public access to records.
"There is no doubt that the FOIA process can and must be improved, which is why I have worked tirelessly on bipartisan legislation that the House will vote on today. But issuing this erroneous, incomplete, and highly partisan staff report—which has never been vetted or voted on by the Committee—will not help these goals.”
Cummings went on to say that the Obama administration had been more transparent than the George W. Bush administration when it came to disclosing agency documents and said that previous testimony had shown the FOIA process was not hampered because of political interference.