PROMISES, PROMISES: Little transparency progress

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The Associated Press
Monday, March 14, 2011; 12:48 PM

WASHINGTON -- Two years into its pledge to improve government transparency, the Obama administration took action on fewer requests for federal records from citizens, journalists, companies and others last year even as significantly more people asked for information. The administration disclosed at least some of what people wanted at about the same rate as the previous year.

People requested information 544,360 times last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act from the 35 largest agencies, up nearly 41,000 more than the previous year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of new federal data. But the government responded to nearly 12,400 fewer requests.

The administration refused to release any sought-after materials in more than 1-in-3 information requests, including cases when it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper under the law. It refused more often to quickly consider information requests about subjects described as urgent or especially newsworthy. And nearly half the agencies that AP examined took longer - weeks more, in some cases - to give out records last year than during the previous year.

The government's responsiveness under the Freedom of Information Act is widely considered a barometer of how transparent federal offices are. The AP's analysis comes a day before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing examining the Obama administration's progress.

There were some improvements. The administration less frequently invoked the "deliberative process" exemption under the law to withhold records describing decision-making behind the scenes. President Barack Obama had directed agencies to use it less often, but the number of such cases had surged after his first year in office to more than 71,000. It fell last year to 53,360. The exemption was still commonly invoked last year at the Homeland Security Department, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of cases across the whole government.

Overall, the decidedly mixed performance shows the federal government struggling to match the promises Obama made early in his term to improve transparency and disclose more information rapidly. "Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing," Obama said when he took office."

The White House said it was voluntarily disclosing more information, forestalling a need to formally make requests under the law, and said that agencies released information in nearly 93 percent of cases, excluding instances when it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper.

"A lot of the statistics need to be taken with a grain of salt, but they may understate our successes," said Steven Croley, a special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy.

At an event on Monday celebrating Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information, Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli announced the unveiling of a website, foia.gov, to provide the public with a centralized resource that details how to file requests for government records.

The Obama administration censored 194 pages of internal e-mails about its Open Government Directive that the AP requested more than one year ago. The December 2009 directive requires every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public. But the White House Office of Management and Budget blacked-out entire pages of some e-mails between federal employees discussing how to apply the new openness rules, and it blacked-out one e-mail discussing how to respond to AP's request for information about the transparency directive.

The OMB invoked the "deliberative process" exemption - the one that Obama said to use more sparingly - at least 192 separate times in turning over the censored e-mails to the AP. Some blacked-out sections involved officials discussing changes the White House wanted and sections of the openness rules that were never made official.

This year, after Republicans won control in the House and with the presidential election looming, the fight over transparency could turn political. The new Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is conducting a broad inquiry into Obama's openness promises. The investigation was at least partly prompted by reports from the AP last year that the Homeland Security Department had sidetracked hundreds of requests for federal records to top political advisers, who wanted information about those requesting the materials.


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© 2011 The Associated Press

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