Media blackout: Obama censors more documents, citing national security

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Amid intense public interest over drones, the Osama bin Laden raid and other terrorism-related news, the U.S. government cited national security as its reason for refusing to release documents requested by the public last year more often than in any year since President Obama took office, according to a study released Monday.

The Associated Press reviewed and analyzed the Obama administration’s level of responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests, giving the administration credit for answering its highest number of requests for copies of government files and slightly reducing the backlog of requests from previous years.

But the survey also faulted government agencies, led by the Pentagon and the CIA, for increasing the number of times they invoked legal reasons to keep records secret or redact them.

According to the AP analysis, the U.S. government last year turned over all or parts of the records requested in roughly 65 percent of requests, while rejecting more than one-third of requests, a slight increase over 2011. Over the last fiscal year, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — an increase over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in 2010.

Not surprisingly, the CIA was the most secretive agency. It denied 60 percent of 3,586 requests for information, compared to 49 percent a year earlier.

** FILE ** In this March 31, 2011, file photo House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, Caliornia Republican, right, accompanied by the committee's ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, Maryland Democrat, presides over the committee's hearing on the Freedom of Information Act on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

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** FILE ** In this March 31, 2011, file photo House Oversight ... more >

The stepped-up secrecy flies in the face of Mr. Obama’s pledge during his first week in office to run the “most transparent government in history.” He promised at the time that the nation’s open-records law would be “administered with a clear presumption — in the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

Watchdogs organizations and others who regularly make FOIA requests offered some praise for the Obama administration’s progress on open-government issues, but they say government agencies still have an abysmal record when it comes to responding to public requests for information.

Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive at George Washington University said Mr. Obama has declassified such items as the national intelligence budget, the so-called “torture memos” and information about the Justice Department’s warrantless wiretapping program. But the openness on big issues has not filtered down to the agencies dealing with FOIA requests.

“We have just not seen the agencies respond to the Obama and [Attorney General] Eric Holder presumption of disclosure. … You see a real hangover of regular bureaucratic behavior,” he said.

Others point to a growing trend among government agencies to refuse to waive the costs of responding to request, even for those applicants whose eligibility for a public-interest fee waiver seems clear.

The Obama administration “has been responsible for a growing trend in which agencies issue baseless denials of public-interest fee waiver requests,” said Julie Murray, an attorney at the watchdog group Public Citizen.

Melanie Ann Pustay, who heads the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, on Monday defended the administration’s record on transparency.

Even though agencies received more requests than in previous years, Ms. Pustay said, government officials “rose to the challenge” and processed more requests than ever before. The government as a whole processed more than 665,000 request in fiscal year 2012, which is 34,000 more than they processed in fiscal year 2011 and 65,000 more than they processed two years ago.

As a result, the government reduced its backlog of pending requests by 14 percent over the last fiscal year and 45 percent since Mr. Obama took office, she said.

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