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PROMISES, PROMISES: Little transparency progress

Organizations that routinely ask for government records are fighting many of the same battles for information waged during the Bush administration. Federal offices lack enough employees and money to respond to requests quickly and thoroughly, said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. With federal spending expected to tighten, the problem will likely get worse.

"They're going to be asked to do more with less," Weismann said.

AP's analysis showed that the odds a government agency would search its filing cabinets and turn over copies of documents, e-mails, videos or other requested materials depended mostly on which agency produced them - and on a person's patience. Willingness to wait - and then wait some more - was a virtue. Agencies refused more routinely last year to quickly consider information requests deemed especially urgent or newsworthy, agreeing to conduct a speedy review about 1-in-5 times they were asked. The State Department granted only 1 out of 98 such reviews; the Homeland Security Department granted 27 out of 1,476. The previous year the government overall granted more than 1-in-4 such speedy reviews.

The parts of the government that deal with sensitive matters like espionage or stock market swindles, including the CIA or Securities and Exchange Commission, entirely rejected information requests more than half the time during fiscal 2010. And they took their time to decide: The SEC averaged 553 days to reply to each request it considered complicated, and the CIA took more than three months.

Less-sensitive agencies, such as the Social Security Administration or Department of Agriculture, turned over at least some records nearly every time someone asked for them, often in just weeks.

Some federal agencies showed marked improvements, but sometimes it came at a cost elsewhere in the government. The Homeland Security Department cut its number of backlogged information requests by 40 percent last year, thanks mostly to work under a $7.6 million federal contract with TDB Communications of Lenexa, Kan., which was approved during the Bush administration. The company accomplished its work partly by forwarding to the State Department tens of thousands of requests for immigration records from Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services because the State Department makes visa determinations in immigration cases. At one point, as the Homeland Security Department was reducing its backlog, it was sending as many as 3,800 cases each month to the State Department, said Janice DeGarmo, a State Department spokeswoman.

The State Department received and handled three times as many requests in 2010 than the previous year. It ended up with a backlog of more than 20,500 overdue cases, more than twice as many as the previous year.

Also, the Veterans Affairs Department said it received 40,000 fewer information requests last year. Spokeswoman Jo Schuda said the department incorrectly labeled some requests in 2009 as being filed under the Freedom of Information Act but actually were made under the U.S. Privacy Act, a different law.

The 35 agencies that AP examined were: Agency for International Development, CIA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Agriculture Department, Commerce Department, Defense Department, Education Department, Energy Department, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Interior Department, Justice Department, Labor Department, State Department, Transportation Department, Treasury Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Trade Commission, NASA, National Science Foundation, National Transportation Safety Board, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Management and Budget, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Office of Personnel Management, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Securities and Exchange Commission, Small Business Administration and the Social Security Administration.

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Online:

FOIA.gov:http://www.foia.gov/index.html

Sunshine Week:http://www.sunshineweek.org/


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© 2011 The Associated Press