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.