Government falling down on fulfilling information requests

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Freedom of Information Act, signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, generally provides that any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain records from federal records.

There are nine specific exemptions, including personnel, medical, classified, trade secrets or others, but otherwise, the law promotes open government.

So how are we doing?

Not so well, according to an Associated Press analysis of new data for last year, including eight months of the Trump administration.

Of 823,222 requests, 78 percent received censored files or nothing at all. When no records were provided, the government said about half the time that no information related to the request could be found.

Even when records requests are fulfilled, which can take months or even years, the documents were censored in two-thirds of the cases.

The federal government spent $40.6 million in legal fees defending its decision to withhold federal files, a record amount.

The AP noted that included the time when a U.S. judge ruled against the AP and other news organizations asking for details about who and how much the FBI paid to unlock the iPhone used by a gunman in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.

Taxpayers also paid the New York Times $51,910 to reimburse it for the legal fees it spent to obtain records about chemical weapons in Iraq.

The government said it found nothing 180,924 times, an 18 percent increase over the previous year, although it was impossible to determine whether the records did not actually exist or the federal employees simply did not search hard enough.

“Federal agencies are failing to take advantage of modern technology to store, locate and produce records in response to FOIA requests, and the public is losing out as a result,” said Adam A. Marshall, the Knight Foundation litigation attorney at the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

He said citizens and others should try to precisely describe how they want filing cabinets, hard drives or email accounts searched, but “you shouldn’t have to be an expert in records management just to submit a FOIA.”

The Trump administration noted last week that it had received a record number of information requests last year — we assume many were for the president’s tax returns — but many agencies had reduced their backlogs of overdue requests.

Often, when challenged, the government admitted it had improperly tried to withhold pages, but only about 4.3 percent of such cases were actually challenged.

While Trump has declined to release his personal tax returns or White House visitor’s logs, he is personally more accessible to reporters than President Obama, and was open with his medical records.

Released Friday, the Freedom of Information Act figures covered 116 departments and agencies in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. The most requests went to the departments of Homeland Security, Justice, Defense, Health and Human Services and Agriculture, the National Archives and Records Administrations and Veterans Administration.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2005 launched the first national Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information that has been held every year since to coincide with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.

We all agree that there are things which must be kept secret, such as national security and trade secrets, but bureaucratic inertia should not be the reason information is not released.

Secrecy of public records should be the exception, rather than the rule.

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