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Audit finds more than 200K public-records requests unanswered
Nick Juliano
Published: Monday March 17, 2008

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The Freedom of Information Act is predicated on the notion that the government's documents are the property of its citizens and that people should have easy access to them.

Two years after President Bush signed an executive order designed to strengthen FOIA compliance and reduce backlogs of pending requests, an audit of public information procedures finds some progress but persistent problems. Hundreds of thousands of requests remain unanswered, and compliance with electronic requests has not kept pace with technological innovation.

"Many of the same old scofflaw agencies are still shirking their responsibilities to the public," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, which released the Knight Open Government Survey audit Monday.

One of the key goals of Bush's executive order, signed in December 2005, was for federal agencies to reduce their backlog of pending FOIA requests. The Knight audit found about 200,000 requests were still pending, and that some agencies' backlogs actually had increased in the two years since Bush signed the order.

The Department of Homeland Security was one agency where pending FOIA requests increased, from 82,544 in fiscal year 2005 to 83,661 in 2007, according to the audit. DHS "set an overarching goal of eliminating FOIA backlog" by the end of last year, but it did not augment this plan with "manageable interim targets," according to the report. DHS backlog reduced by only 25 percent during the audited time period.

The FBI was another agency singled out for failing to meet backlog-reduction targets. It "set several goals to process older requests ... but failed to meet all of them and pushed the completion dates back a year on two occasions," according to the audit.

The audit credited the Department of Defense and the CIA for making "concerted efforts to process their older cases," and it found that the CIA "far exceeded its goal" of 25 percent reduction in backlogs, reporting a 74 percent decrease in its oldest cases last year.

"[T]he CIA achieved its reduction by reviewing documents responsive to these requests and releasing information, such as the CIA 'Family Jewels' document, which had been one of the oldest pending FOIA requests at the CIA," the audit found.

Overall, FOIA backlogs only decreased by 2 percent across all government agencies, according to the audit, and nearly a third of agencies reported an increase in pending requests between 2005 and 2007. Bush's executive order was seen as doing little to spark FOIA compliance in agencies that had traditionally been lax in complying with such requests because it lacked a system of oversight to force compliance.

"The order was only a small step for open government," Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, said in a news release. "There are certainly mixed messages when the President asks for results under the Freedom of Information Act, and at the same time refuses to support funding of technology or personnel, opposes improvements to the law, and exempts parts of the Executive Office of the President from the law."

The Archive is a plaintiff in a FOIA lawsuit against the White House Office of Administration concerning records relating to a faulty e-mail system that is behind the disappearance of 10 million e-mails to and from administration officials.

The full Knight Open Government Survey is available here (.pdf).