The Obama administration has a lot of work to do in order to make good on its promise to be the most transparent presidency in history. Last year was the worst year yet for the administration’s censoring of government documents or outright denial of access to them under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) according to the Associated Press.
The recent analysis of data from the administration shows that the current occupants of the White House cited more legal exceptions to withhold material and refused a record number of times to quickly turn over files. Furthermore, the government’s own figures from 99 federal agencies show that little effort has been made to improve the way they release requested records.
Sunday was the start of Sunshine Week, when news organizations, throughout the country, promote open government and freedom of information. A recent Washington Post blog, marking the start of Sunshine Week, cited a report from the National Security Archives that found that 54 percent of all agencies have ignored directives from the president and Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a “presumption of disclosure” with FOIA requests. Those directives were issued in 2009.
According to the AP story, the Obama administration cited national security a record 8,496 times last year — a 57 percent increase over the previous year — in refusing to hand over documents amid increased public interest of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
Citizens and journalists are not the only people having a hard time getting information from the White House. Last week McClatchy Newspapers reported that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is locked in a bitter dispute with the Obama administration over access to more than 9,000 top-secret documents. Those documents come from the George W. Bush administration and are considered key to the Senate’s ongoing investigation of the CIA’s cancelled detention and interrogation programs.
Regarding the government’s poor response to FOIA requests, Melanie Pustay, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that the current requests “are more complex than they were before.”
"The public is frustrated and unhappy with the pace of responses and the amount of information provided,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at the same hearing. "There's a common reaction for anybody who has any experience with it that it doesn't function well.”