Many Cab­i­net-level agen­cies be­rated on han­dling FOIA re­quests

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics - BY CHUCK NEUBAUER

A con­gres­sional com­mit­tee has given the fed­eral gov­ern­ment a be­low-av­er­age C-mi­nus grade on its abil­ity to track ba­sic in­for­ma­tion about the pro­cess­ing of Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act (FOIA) re­quests it re­ceives, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased Thurs­day.

The House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee found that 11 of 17 Cab­i­net-level agen­cies had in­suf­fi­cient logs for keep­ing track of how they han­dled FOIA re­quests made by per­sons and or­ga­ni­za­tions for public in­for­ma­tion, even though such records are re­quired by law.

The com­mit­tee said the three agen­cies that re­ceive the most FOIA re­quests — the de­part­ments of Jus­tice, Home­land Se­cu­rity and De­fense — “were all miss­ing crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion from their track­ing logs.” The re­port gave them each a grade of D.

In con­trast, the re­port gave its top grade of A to the Ed­u­ca­tion, En­ergy, La­bor and Trans­porta­tion de­part­ments and an A-mi­nus to Trea­sury and the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s over­all C-mi­nus grade is based on an av­er­age of the grades for the 17 Cab­i­net-level de­part­ments.

The com­mit­tee re­quested the FOIA track­ing logs from 180 en­ti­ties rep­re­sent­ing 100 gov­ern­ment agen­cies in Jan­uary 2011, eval­u­at­ing whether they con­tained such “nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion” as the date of the re­quest, the name of the re­quester, a de­scrip­tion of the records re­quested, whether records were pro­vided and the date the file was closed.

“A num­ber of agen­cies demon­strated they are able to track ba­sic in­for­ma­tion about re­quests, while oth­ers ei­ther would not or could not pro­vide such in­for­ma­tion as re­quested,” said com­mit­tee Chair­man Rep. Dar­rell E. Issa, Cal­i­for­nia Re­pub­li­can. “The find­ing that many FOIA of­fices strug­gle to demon­strate trans­parency about very ba­sic in­for­ma­tion is trou­bling and ne­ces­si­tates greater scru­tiny.”

The com­mit­tee, which re­leased its re­port dur­ing “Sun­shine Week,” an an­nual event to raise aware­ness about open gov­ern­ment, sin­gled out the Jus­tice Depart­ment for crit­i­cism, say­ing it pro­duced track­ing logs for only three of 40 of­fices that respond to FOIA re­quests.

A Jus­tice Depart­ment spokesman, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied, said it turned over logs and other in­for­ma­tion to the com­mit­tee on 11 of­fices, in­clud­ing the FBI, which re­ceives more than 10,000 re­quests an­nu­ally. The depart­ment is still work­ing to gather the re­main­ing re­quested in­for­ma­tion, the spokesman said.

The Com­merce Depart­ment did not pro­duce the re­quested logs, and seven oth­ers, in­clud­ing the Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment and the In­te­rior Depart­ment, did not pro­vide them in a search­able, dig­i­tal for­mat as re­quested, earn­ing F’s.

The de­part­ments of Veteran Af­fairs, Agri­cul­ture and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices got D’s. The State Depart­ment got a C, in part, for not list­ing the final dis­po­si­tion of the re­quests on the log.

Pres­i­dent Obama said on his first day in of­fice in Jan­uary 2009 that FOIA is “per­haps the most pow­er­ful in­stru­ment we have to mak­ing our gov­ern­ment hon­est and trans­par­ent, and of hold­ing it ac­count­able.” He said he ex­pected his ad­min­is­tra­tion to “not sim­ply live up to the let­ter, but also the spirit, of this law.”

The White House on Thurs­day de­fended the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s han­dling of FOIA re­quests.

“From the day he took of­fice, the pres­i­dent com­mit­ted his ad­min­is­tra­tion to work to­wards un­prece­dented open­ness in gov­ern­ment,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, adding that over the past three years fed­eral agen­cies have made “great ef­forts to make gov­ern­ment more trans­par­ent and more ac­ces­si­ble.”

OMB Watch, a non­par­ti­san group that pro­motes open gov­ern­ment, said Wed­nes­day in a re­port the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had “mixed re­sults” in im­ple­ment­ing FOIA, mak­ing “strides and stum­bles.” It said the ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­cessed more FOIA re­quests in fis­cal year 2011 than pre­vi­ous years, but added that a back­log had in­creased be­cause of a 35 per­cent in­crease in new re­quests at Home­land Se­cu­rity, which re­ceives the most re­quests of any fed­eral agency.

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