One day after being sworn into office, President Barack Obama instructed federal agencies to ensure government transparency by complying with the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act law.
“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government,” Obama wrote in a memo to federal agencies Jan. 21, 2009. “The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.”
“The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public,” the newly-installed president continued. “They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and down by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”
One year later, Obama’s requests for transparency have apparently gone unheeded. In fact a provision in the Freedom of Information Act law that allows the government to hide records that detail its internal decision-making has been invoked by Obama agencies more often in the past year than during the final year of President George W. Bush.
Major agencies cited that exemption to refuse records at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, compared with 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year, according to annual FOIA reports filed by federal agencies.
An Associated Press review of Freedom of Information Act reports filed by 17 major agencies found that the use of nearly every one of the law’s nine exemptions to withhold information from the public rose in fiscal year 2009, which ended last October.
The AP review comes on the heels of another bit of government transparency news: that the Obama Administration has threatened to veto a congressional intelligence bill because it objects to efforts to increase intelligence oversight.
Among other things, the proposed legislation would subject intelligence agencies to General Accountability Office review. US intelligence agencies are currently immune from review by the Congressional auditing office.
Departments used the government decision making exemption more even though Obama’s Justice Department told agencies to that disclosing such records was “fully consistent with the purpose of the FOIA,” a law intended to keep government accountable to the public.
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration cited the exemption in refusing the AP’s FOIA request for internal memos on its decisions about a database showing incidents in which airplanes and birds collided. The FAA initially tried to withhold the bird-strike database from the public, but later released it under pressure.
The FAA claimed the same exemption to hold back nearly all records on its approval of an Air Force One flyover of New York City for publicity shots — a flight that prompted fears in the city of a Sept. 11-style attack. It also withheld internal communications during the aftermath of the public relations gaffe.
In all, major agencies cited that or other FOIA exemptions to refuse information at least 466,872 times in budget year 2009, compared with 312,683 times the previous year, the review found. Agencies often cite more than one exemption when withholding part or all of the material sought in an open-records request.
All told, the 17 agencies reviewed by AP reported getting 444,924 FOIA requests in fiscal 2009, compared with 493,610 in fiscal 2008.”
The AP examined the 2008 and 2009 budget year FOIA reports from the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Federal Reserve Board.
Other FOIA exemptions cover information on national defense and foreign relations, internal agency rules and practices, trade secrets, personal privacy, law enforcement proceedings, supervision of financial institutions and geological information on wells.
One, known as Exemption 3, covers dozens of types of information that Congress shielded from disclosure when passing other laws.