FOIA-request audit shows response to Obama transparency pledge is uneven

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; A04

The Obama administration's first year of efforts to improve access to government information has yielded mixed results, according to an audit of Freedom of Information Act requests set to be released Monday. The report by the National Security Archive at George Washington University comes at the start of Sunshine Week, the annual attempt by federal groups and news organizations to promote better access to government information.

President Obama issued new guidelines on government transparency on his first full day of office, ordering agencies to "adopt a presumption in favor" of FOIA requests and laying the groundwork for the eventual release of reams of previously undisclosed government information on the Internet.

But less than a third of the 90 federal agencies that process requests for information have significantly changed their practices since that initial order, the report said. The departments of Agriculture and Justice, the Office of Management and Budget and the Small Business Administration earned especially high marks for completely or partly fulfilling more requests and denying fewer of them during fiscal 2009. The departments of State, Transportation and Treasury, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have fulfilled fewer requests and denied more of them in the same time period.

"President Obama sent a clear message for freedom of information, and we found that agencies are talking the talk, just not yet walking the walk," said Thomas S. Blanton, who directs the security archive.

Monday's report offers no clear trends, however, because it found a wide variety of changes in each agency's decision to release or deny access to information. White House officials took exception to parts of the findings, saying it is too early for an assessment.

Annual FOIA progress reports from the Justice Department this week will demonstrate more pronounced progress on implementing Obama's transparency orders, said Norm Eisen, special White House counsel for ethics and government reform, who has helped oversee the administration's transparency efforts.

"The official data that we will release will show the trends are more positive -- for example, that there were many more full and partial FOIA releases, although we agree it's too soon for a final judgment," Eisen said. He will represent the administration at a series of Sunshine Week events.

Administration officials also note that FOIA requests account for only one part of its ongoing Open Government Initiative. There are the and Web sites that provide access to government data, the ongoing release of White House visitor logs, Web chats with Cabinet secretaries and senior administration officials, and the administration's wide use of social networking media.

A Washington Post analysis published in January found that more people sued the government for access to federal records in the first year of the Obama administration than in the final two years of George W. Bush's administration. Critics argued that little has changed since the Bush years because agencies still often fight disclosure requests, a point disputed by Obama administration officials.

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