(pictured) of increased openness and even though decisions
were reached on slightly fewer requests.
The review of 17 US government departments found that, in total, they reported using nearly every one of the FOIA exemptions more in the 2009 fiscal year, which ended last October, compared with the previous 12 months.
Obama promised last year to be more open, which, he said, “encourages accountability through transparency.” He added: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”
The 17 departments cited exemptions at least 466,872 times in 2009, compared with 312,683 times the previous year, the review found. Departments often cite more than one exemption when withholding material sought in a FOIA request.
One of the most frequently cited exemptions is refusing disclosure on the grounds that the material would shed light on the decision-making process. This was the very exemption that Obama told departments to stop using so frequently.
Obama’s directive, issued in written instructions from the justice department, appears to have been widely ignored.
The 17 departments used the exemption at least 70,779 times in the 2009 fiscal year, according to the review, up from 47,395 during president George W. Bush’s final full budget year. Obama was president for nine months in the 2009 fiscal year.
The Obama administration’s initial focus seems to have been on clearing the backlog of old cases. The number of requests passed time limits set out under the law fell from 124,019 in fiscal year 2008 to 67,764 at the end of the most recent budget period at the 17 departments.
The review found that the departments disclosed everything sought in FOIA requests in at least 162,205 cases last year, compared with 196,776 previously.
They refused disclosure entirely on the basis of exemptions 20,005 times, compared with 21,057 previously.
They received 444,924 requests, compared with 493,610 previously. In addition, they started the year with 145,162 requests pending, compared with 156,611 previously.
They reached decisions on 501,158 requests, compared with 504,110 in the previous year.
The survey covered the departments of agricul-ture, commerce, defense, education, energy, health and human services, homeland security, housing and urban development, interior, justice, labor, state, transportation, treasury, and veterans affairs; the environmental protection agency, and the federal reserve board.
In a statement, Obama noted the release of White House visitor logs and federal data online in recent months, and again committed his administration to being “the most open and transparent ever.”
“We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done,” he said. “We will continue to work toward an unmatched level of transparency, participation and accountability across the entire administration.”
Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief-of-staff, and Bob Bauer, White House counsel, urged government agencies to improve their handling of information requests and re-examine whether they are devoting adequate resources to respond to them promptly and co-operatively.
The White House describes as “historic” its open-government directive”, issued last December, which orders every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public. However, the adminstration has not responded to a FOIA request for e-mails and other documents related to that initiative.
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