In its first year, the Obama administration vowed an increase in transparency across government, including through the Freedom of Information Act, the proactive release of documents and the establishment of an agency to declassify more than 370 million pages of archived material.
Three years later, new evidence suggests that administration officials have struggled to overturn the long-standing culture of secrecy in Washington. Some of these high-profile transparency measures have stalled, and by some measures the government is keeping more secrets than before.
Media organizations and individuals requesting information under the FOIA last year were less likely to receive the material than in 2010 at 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level departments, according to a Washington Post analysis of annual reports of government agencies.
The federal government was more likely last year than in 2010 to use the act’s exemptions to refuse information. And the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start, largely because of 30,000 more pending requests to the Department of Homeland Security.
The FOIA went into effect in 1967 to provide public access to undisclosed, unclassified federal government information. The law requires the information to be released unless the government determines that it can be withheld under one of nine exemptions.
The Post’s analysis of the handling of FOIA requests comes as the administration and Congress are trying to exert new control over access to government information. A Senate committee last week approved legislation aimed at stopping leaks of classified information, and the administration has prosecuted six cases against government employees accused of misusing secret information.
The trends appear to run against the direction set out by the president in the earliest days of his government. On his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009, President Obama issued a memo on freedom of information, telling agencies: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
The early results seemed promising. In 2010, response rates to FOIA requests increased and the use of exemptions to refuse requests fell. Federal departments also reduced the backlog of pending requests.
Since then, the Post analysis shows, progress has stalled and, in the case of most departments, reversed in direction. The analysis showed that the number of requests denied in full due to exemptions rose more than 10 percent in 2011, to 25,636 from 22,834 the previous year.
Similarly, the pledge to declassify archived material has run into major delays. The National Declassification Center (NDC) was established by the president in December 2009 to review and declassify 371 million pages of material by December 2013.
In its progress report issued last month, the center said it had completed the review process for 51.1 million pages, less than 14 percent of the total. Of that number, 41.8 million pages were made available to researchers and the public.
The center’s director, Sheryl Senberger, acknowledged in an interview that it will have “issues” meeting the 2013 deadline. She blamed legal complexities and a lack of resources at some agencies.
“I don’t like to admit defeat, so I really absolutely must not say that we will not meet the deadline,” she said. “I would prefer to say that we’re going to show great progress, and we will absolutely accomplish certain steps in our progress. But if a person only associates accomplishment of the goal with all 372 million pages made available to the public, no. ”
Senberger said one reason for the delay is funding. Spending last year on declassification across the government, excluding intelligence agencies, was $52.8 million, according to the Information Security Oversight Office, the agency that oversees the classification system. That was less than 1 percent of the budget for classifying material, which rose 12 percent year-over-year, to $11.36 billion.
Although the declassification effort appears certain to miss its deadline, the volume of material being classified jumped 20 percent in 2011. The oversight office cited better record-keeping as a reason for the recent increases.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said The Post’s FOIA analysis shows that the administration “can be credited or blamed for agency performance only up to a certain point, and no further.”
“It’s all part of a larger picture that warrants attention,” he said. “The NDC piece of it is particularly noteworthy as they were assigned a job by the president, and it looks like they’re not going to complete it, which is a shocking development, or it ought to be.”
Others were more critical. Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the administration has failed to live up to its promises to deliver transparent government.
“I think that in the first months, President Obama and his administration took some very important and historic steps to provide transparency,” she said. “The reality is that governments generally have a tendency to secrecy, and after initially pledging a new era of transparency, the Obama administration has backtracked in critically important areas. . . . I think it has sent a message through government into the country that is quite disturbing about valuing secrecy in the national security context over transparency.”
Shamsi added: “We recognize that there are genuine instances in which secrecy is both legitimate and necessary. . . . But claims that are too broad in their sweep undermine the very system itself.”