Obama restores some of the 'Freedom' to FOIA

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2009 

WASHINGTON — One curious soul on Feb. 8, 2001, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the State Department.

He or she is still awaiting a reply.

Nearly eight years have passed, making the early 2001 search for information one of the State Department's 10 oldest pending FOIA requests. While extreme, it also reflects how information flow slowed markedly during the Bush administration.

"In the past, it's been difficult even for a public agency like ourselves to obtain information that affects our operations," Tom Birmingham, general manager of the Westlands Water District in Fresno, Calif., said on Friday.

As one of his first acts, President Barack Obama issued an order reversing his predecessor's approach toward the release of government documents. Scholars, journalists, farmers and the simply curious now await the reopening of federal information taps tightened since 2001.

In fiscal 2007, for instance, the Defense Department completely granted approximately 48 percent of the FOIA requests it processed. In fiscal 1998, by contrast, the Clinton administration's Defense Department completely granted approximately 61 percent of FOIA requests.

The Pentagon was not alone, a review of federal agency reports shows. Percentages are approximate, because of how the reports are compiled, but trends are obvious.

The Interior Department completely granted approximately 64 percent of FOIA requests processed in 1998 but only 47 percent in 2007. The State Department completely granted 28 percent of FOIA requests processed in 1998, compared with 9 percent in 1998.

Other federal agencies, though not all, likewise lessened access to information during the Bush administration, the review of public records reveals.

The decline was most pronounced in agencies known for keeping secrets. The CIA completely granted approximately 44 percent of FOIA requests processed in 1998. By 2007, this had fallen to 11 percent. Other agencies followed suit. The Agriculture Department completely granted 85 percent of FOIA requests in 2007, down from 95 percent a decade before.

The Freedom of Information Act, signed into law in 1966, invites widespread use. Documents may be released completely, denied completely or, as often happens, released partially.

Each year, 2 million or more requests are received by federal agencies.

The requests run the gamut. The secretive National Security Agency receives frequent FOIA requests seeking information on UFOs, the Food and Drug Administration fields numerous corporate FOIA requests, and political opposition researchers regularly use the law in search of dirt.

Delays are common in every administration. The zipped-lip trend accelerated, though, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Any discretionary decision by your agency to disclose information protected under the FOIA should be made only after full and deliberate consideration of the institutional, commercial and personal privacy interests that could be implicated by disclosure of the information," then-Attorney General John Ashcroft cautioned in an Oct. 12, 2001, memo.

Tellingly, Ashcroft told federal officials they could "be assured" the Justice Department would defend decisions to withhold public records. Attorney and FOIA specialist Scott A. Hodes, who formerly worked for the Justice Department, added that the "overall secrecy feel of the Bush administration" contributed to the more frequent denials.

"They attempted to withhold routine decision making processes . . . no matter how mundane it was, or if it was just embarrassing to the administration," Hodes said.

Obama seems to spin this around, with his presidential memo issued Jan. 21.

"All agencies should adopt a presumption of disclosure," Obama wrote, adding that "in the face of doubt, openness should prevail."

Fulfilling this promise, though, could prove difficult, as the number of federal information-access officers has shrunk. The Justice Department, for instance, reported having 872 full-time FOIA staffers working in 1998. By 2007, the department's full-time FOIA staff had fallen to 365.

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