National Security Archive Finds Mixed Results for Obama Administration FOIA Initiative

To coincide with Sunshine Week (March 15–19, 2010), the National Security Archive at George Washington University released an audit of federal government agencies’ administration of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The audit was the first performed by the National Security Archive since President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder issued directives in 2009 to federal agencies mandating reform of the FOIA compliance process.

The audit found that while some progress had been made in increasing transparency, results across the federal government were decidedly mixed. For example, many ancient requests—some as old as 18 years—still persist in the FOIA system.

A minority of agencies have responded to the Obama and Holder Memos with concrete changes in their FOIA practices.

Only four out of 28 agencies reporting—including Holder’s own Justice Department—show releases up and denials down under the FOIA.

The audit, which is based on data obtained from government agencies through FOIA requests filed by the National Security Archive in September 2009, found that federal agencies had a wide range of responses to the Obama and Holder memorandums. Some agencies (13 out of 90) implemented concrete changes in practice as a result of the memos; some (14 out of 90) have made changes in staff training; and still others (11 out of 90) have merely circulated and discussed the memos. The remaining agencies (52) either told the National Security Archive that they have no records that demonstrate how they implemented the Obama and Holder memos or did not respond at all to the FOIA request.

The report also shows that several agencies have severe backlogs in processing FOIA requests, with some requests as old as 18 years. Presidential libraries are facing some of the greatest challenges processing old requests—the libraries for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all have requests pending

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from the first year they began accepting records requests from the public. For example, the estimated response time from the Reagan Presidential Library has grown from 18 months in May 2001 to 77 months in March 2007.

National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton said that the audit makes it clear that too many government agencies are falling short of the goals set out by President Obama. “It is time for a ‘No FOIA Request Left Behind’ initiative,” Blanton said.