EDITORIAL: Lousy FOIA compliance shows need for reform

Journalists and watchdogs can’t tell you what government agencies are doing if those agencies don’t provide public information they are legally required to provide. Not surprisingly, many government agencies are quite adept at withholding information.

Back in January, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University sent identical Freedom of Information Act requests to 21 federal agencies. As of the end of April, however, only seven of the agencies had completely fulfilled the records request.

The Department of Homeland Security Headquarters Division responded with the requested data in just nine business days. The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division responded the next day. The agency’s Justice Management Division responded two days after that. Soon after, records from the Fish &Wildlife Service arrived, followed by the U.S. Army and the Bureau of Land Management. Later, a response came from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

A few other agencies contacted made good-faith efforts to comply with the request and appeared to be working toward making the data available. However, 10 of the 21 agencies contacted either failed to respond or stopped responding. One of the 10, the CIA, denied the request for records associated with the processing of FOIA requests received by the agency.

This is an unacceptable compliance rate, yet a predictable result of a government that’s so large that each agency has its own operating culture and FOIA compliance process.

According to attorney Mark Zaid, a member of the National Archives and Records Administration’s FOIA Advisory Committee, this should not have been a difficult request to fulfill. The fact that some of the agencies were able to send data within days “clearly establishes this as a reasonable request.”

“So now the question is,” he asks, “why can’t the other agencies comply?’” The answer is that they just don’t want to.

According to The Associated Press, for the second straight year, the Obama administration — the self-titled “most transparent administration” in history — has set records for censoring government files or denying access to them entirely.

“The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn’t find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy,” The AP reported. “It also acknowledged in nearly one in three cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged.”

FOIA is in need of reform. Federal records must be presumed open and the Office of Government Information Services, often referred to as FOIA ombudsman, must be strengthened. And federal agencies should face consequences for refusing to comply with FOIA requests — especially if a requester has to go to court to obtain records.

The federal government conducts the public’s business, and as such, the public should have access to government work. Without transparency, there can be no accountability.