Obama Openness Vow Broken as Disclosure Suits Top Bush

Lawsuits filed in federal district court to force the government to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests surged under President Barack Obama.

The FOIA-related complaints jumped 28 percent to 720 in the last two years of Obama’s first term from 562 in the last two years of President George W. Bush’s second term, according to a study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

The analysis marks the first time FOIA lawsuit data has been available in a central, public location, said Susan Long, a Syracuse University statistics professor and co-director of the data-gathering and research organization.

“We thought this was a hole that needed to be plugged,” said Long. She leads a team of researchers who check federal district courts across the U.S. daily to see if there is activity on FOIA-related cases. The information is available at foiaproject.org.

Long said the records may lead to greater accountability at the Justice Department, which defends agencies in cases over information withheld from FOIA requesters.

“A little sunlight might change people’s behavior a bit,” she said.

The foiaproject.org website said that “extensive case-by-case analysis” may be required before a full assessment of the dramatic surge in FOIA complaints can be documented.

Justice Response

Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, said in an e-mailed statement that the figures may reflect the increase in the number of FOIA requests made to agencies since 2009.

“The individual cases would need to be reviewed to determine which raised valid FOIA claims,” Pustay said, adding that it’s “difficult to draw conclusions about why FOIA lawsuits are made without surveying the plaintiffs themselves to find out why.”

She said the Justice Department hadn’t had “time to verify the numbers” in the study.

The study broke out the growth of FOIA-related complaints filed against individual U.S. agencies. The State Department showed the highest growth rate from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, more than doubling from 18 to 38 lawsuits, according to the study.

Under FOIA, agencies have 20 working days to provide requested information or offer a timetable for eventual disclosure. If an agency denies a request in part or in full, it’s required to explain why records were redacted or withheld. If an individual’s administrative appeal is denied, a suit can be filed in federal district court to force disclosure. Those FOIA cases can take years to resolve.

Timeliness Pledge

The researchers said that due to the difficulties separating out FOIA suit filings that overlap different administrations, studying the last two years of each president’s term gave a clearer view of their relative disclosure records.

Obama called FOIA, which was passed during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the “most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government,” in a memo to department and agency heads on Jan. 21, 2009, his first full day in office.

Attorney General Eric Holder followed up Obama’s statement with his own directive in March 2009, ordering government agencies to review their internal FOIA rules. In the memo, Holder said that timeliness of FOIA responses was “an essential component of transparency.”

Mixed Record

Earlier this month, an open-government group released an analysis that showed shortcomings in the Obama administration’s transparency record.

The National Security Archive, a Washington-based information repository, said in a Dec. 4 study that 62 of the 99 government agencies it reviewed hadn’t updated their response practices more than three years after Holder’s guidance was issued.

Bloomberg reporters in June filed requests under FOIA for records on taxpayer-supported travel in fiscal year 2011 for the top officers at 57 Cabinet departments and major government agencies. Only eight agencies complied within the legally required 20-day deadline. Six months after the filings, 38 out of 57 agencies had disclosed the travel records.

The lowest rate of response -- 40 percent -- has come from Obama’s cabinet. Among executive departments, only Treasury, Homeland Security, Labor, Commerce, Transportation and Veterans Affairs released travel details.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services are among those who haven’t complied. Even Holder, whose Department of Justice monitors FOIA responses, hasn’t released documents.

Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment last week about the Bloomberg investigation results.

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