October 4, 2016
On his election, President Obama promised greater governmental transparency to the American people. In practice, the Obama administration has set a record for failures to find and produce government documents in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. As Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum reported for the Associated Press’s Big Story, in response to FOIA requests, 129,825 times during the 2015 fiscal year—or more than one in every six cases—government searchers said they came up empty-handed. Overall, Bridis and Gillum wrote, “People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests, also a record.” The 77 percent figure represents a 12 percent increase, compared with the first full year after President Obama’s election.
Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act encourages and enforces government disclosures to citizens and foreigners who request federal records, with exemptions for disclosures that would threaten national security, violate personal privacy, or expose confidential decision-making in certain areas.
Censorship and refusal to disclose are only two parts of a three-piece puzzle, the last being human error. As Bridis and Gillum reported, federal workers and the procedures they use to retrieve requested files also contribute to the problem. Though federal workers are required by law to make a reasonable search for requested files, the means of doing so are left to their discretion. “Skepticism,” Bridis and Gillum wrote, has led many experts making FOIA requests to specify “exactly how they want federal employees to search files.” Official efforts are reportedly underway to address this issue, by implementing specific guidelines, methods, and even lists of search terms to use.
However, an already overworked government staff will be challenged to implement the recommended improvements. As Bridis and Gillum reported, in 2015 the total number of FOIA requests increased 19 percent, compared to the previous year. During that time the number of new, full-time workers handling FOIA requests rose only 7 percent.
Though the corporate press, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, have run stories on the Obama administration’s efforts to improve government transparency, most of these articles predate the dramatic increase in the number of FOIA requests that the Obama administration has failed to respond to adequately. And, whereas corporate media have focused on the president and his administration, Bridis and Gillum focus on the role of the government agencies actually tasked with responding to FOIA requests. A March 2015 story in the Washington Post drew largely from a previous report by Ted Bridis. US News & World Report reran Bridis and Gillum’s report, as did the Wall Street Journal. Notably, however, the Journal ran it as an opinion piece.
Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum, “US Gov’t Sets Record for Failures to Find Files When Asked,” Big Story (Associated Press), March 18, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/697e3523003049cdb0847ecf828afd62/us-govt-sets-record-failures-find-files-when-asked.