Government Secrecy Up

March 27, 2014

Last year, the Obama administration either censored government files or denied access to them altogether more than any other time in his administration, says the Associated Press.

President Obama vowed his administration to be the most transparent in history, but looking at six years of data from 99 federal agencies, there has been little improvement in the way that the government releases records. Evaluating Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the Associated Press found that transparency efforts last year were actually at their worst during Obama's time in office.

  • The government withheld information on the basis of national security 8,496 times -- that is a record, and it is a 57 percent increase over 2012. In Obama's first year, the administration cited national security only 3,658 times.
  • Almost all of these national security cites came from the Defense Department (which includes the NSA and CIA). The Department of Agriculture cited security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) twice, and the National Park Service once.
  • Last year, citizens made 704,394 FOIA requests, up 8 percent from the year before. The government responded to 678,391 of them. In 36 percent of all requests, the government censored the materials or denied access to them entirely. Sometimes the censoring included only a few words or personal information -- other times, it blacked out entire pages.

Has the national security exception been abused? Because the records are not released, the AP could not determine whether holding the documents back was valid. The NSA said that its surge in records requests came from people wanting to know if the agency had collected their phone or email records. The NSA censored or denied requests 98 percent of the time.

  • In 196,034 cases, the government said that it could not find the records requested, or the requester refused to pay the price of copies, or the government deemed the request unreasonable or improper.
  • The government can only deny FOIA requests for national security violations if the information would violate personal privacy, or if it would reveal business secrets or confidential decision making. Last year, these exceptions were cited 546,574 times.
  • Expedited processing of records can be requested, but agencies can deny those requests as well. Last year, the government denied 6,689 out of 7,818 (86 percent) expedited requests. The EPA specifically denied 458 out of 468 expediting requests.

Source: "Open Government Study: Secrecy Up," Associated Press, March 16, 2014.

 

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