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House: Feds below average at processing FOIA requests

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2012

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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