77% of Freedom of Information Act Requests Not Fully Answered

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

On his election, President Obama promised greater governmental transparency to the American people. In practice, the Obama administration has set a record for failures to find and produce government documents in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Signed into law by President Johnson in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) encourages and enforces government disclosures to the people with only nine specific exemptions. As Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum reported for the Associated Press’s Big Story, in response to the public’s FOIA requests, 129,825 times (or more than one in every six cases), government searchers said they came up empty-handed last year. Bridis and Gillum write, “People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests, also a record.” The 77% figure represents a twelve percent increase, compared with the first full year after President Obama’s election.

However, censorship and refusal to disclose are only two parts of a three-piece puzzle, the last being human error. As Bridis and Gillum reported, federal workers themselves, and problems with the procedures they use to retrieve requested files, also contribute to the problem. Though federal workers are required by law to make a reasonable search for requested files, the means of doing so are left to their discretion. Efforts are reportedly underway to address this issue, by implementing specific guidelines, methods, and even lists of search terms to use. However, an already overworked government staff will be challenged to implement the recommended improvements.

Though the corporate press, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, have run stories on the Obama administration’s efforts to improve government transparency, most of these articles predate the dramatic increase in the number of FOIA requests that the Obama administration has failed to respond to adequately.

And, where corporate media have focused on the President and his administration, Bridis and Gillum focus on the role of the government agencies actually tasked with responded to FOIA requests.

Source: Ted Bridis and Jack Gillum, “US Gov’t Sets Record for Failures to Find Files When Asked,” Big Story (Associated Press), March 18, 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/697e3523003049cdb0847ecf828afd62/us-govt-sets-record-failures-find-files-when-asked.

Student Researcher: Alexis Marie Tunstad (Citrus College)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College)