Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One year into its promise of greater government transparency, the Obama administration is more often citing exceptions to the nation’s open records law to withhold federal records even as the number of requests for information declines, according to a review by the Associated Press of agency audits about the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the most frequently cited reasons for keeping records secret: one that President Obama specifically told agencies to stop using so frequently. The Freedom of Information Act exception, known as the “deliberative process” exemption, lets the government withhold records that describe its decision- making behind the scenes.

Mr. Obama’s directive, expressed in written instructions from the Justice Department, appears to have been widely ignored.

Major agencies cited the exemption at least 70,779 times during the 2009 budget year, up from 47,395 times during President George W. Bush’s final full budget year, according to annual reports filed by federal agencies. Mr. Obama was president for nine months in the 2009 period.

The government’s track record under the Freedom of Information Act is widely considered a principal measurement of how transparently it makes decisions. Mr. Obama himself last year vowed: “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Obama noted the release of White House visitor logs and federal data online in recent months, insisting that his administration was recommitted “to be the most open and transparent ever.”

“We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done,” Mr. Obama said.

Also Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and White House Counsel Bob Bauer urged agencies to improve their handling of information requests and assess whether they are devoting the resources needed to respond to requests promptly and cooperatively.

The AP’s review of annual Freedom of Information Act reports filed by 17 major agencies found that the administration’s use of nearly every one of the law’s nine exemptions to withhold information increased during fiscal year 2009, which ended in October.

The agencies cited exemptions at least 466,872 times in budget year 2009, compared with 312,683 times the previous year, the review found. Over the same period, the number of information requests declined by about 11 percent, from 493,610 requests in fiscal 2008 to 444,924 in 2009.

The administration has stalled even over records about its own efforts to be more transparent. Reporters are still waiting - after nearly three months - for records requested about the White House’s “Open Government Directive,” rules issued in December directing every agency to take immediate, specific steps to open their operations up to the public.

In provisions often vaguely worded and buried deep in legislation, Congress has granted an array of special protections over the years: information related to grand jury investigations; additives in cigarettes; juvenile arrest records; the identities of people applying restricted-use pesticides to their crops; and the locations of historically significant caves. All can be legally withheld from the public.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, was so concerned about what he called “exemption creep” that last year he successfully pressed for a new law that requires exemptions to be “clear and unambiguous.”

Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the government is making progress.

In a speech Monday at the start of Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information, Mr. Holder noted that the Justice Department turned over all documents in information requests in more than 1,000 more cases than it had the previous year.

“Put simply, I asked that we make openness the default, not the exception,” Mr. Holder said. “I’m pleased to report that the disturbing 2008 trend - a reduction in this department’s rate of disclosures - has been completely reversed. While we aren’t where we need to be just yet, we’re certainly on the right path.”

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