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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

AP: Administration sets record for withholding government files

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.

The government took longer to turn over files when it provided any, said more regularly that it couldn't find documents and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy.

It also acknowledged in nearly 1 in 3 cases that its initial decisions to withhold or censor records were improper under the law — but only when it was challenged.

Its backlog of unanswered requests at year's end grew remarkably by 55 percent to more than 200,000. It also cut by 375, or about 9 percent, the number of full-time employees across government paid to look for records. That was the fewest number of employees working on the issue in five years.

The government's new figures, published Tuesday, covered all requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2014 under the Freedom of Information law, which is heralded globally as a model for transparent government. They showed that despite disappointments and failed promises by the White House to make meaningful improvements in the way it releases records, the law was more popular than ever. Citizens, journalists, businesses and others made a record 714,231 requests for information. The U.S. spent a record $434 million trying to keep up. It also spent about $28 million on lawyers' fees to keep records secret.

"This disappointing track record is hardly the mark of an administration that was supposed to be the most transparent in history," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to improve the Freedom of Information law. Their effort died in the House last year.

The new figures showed the government responded to 647,142 requests, a 4 percent decrease over the previous year. It more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 250,581 cases or 39 percent of all requests. Sometimes, the government censored only a few words or an employee's phone number, but other times it completely marked out nearly every paragraph on pages.

On 215,584 other occasions, the government said it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.  (More)

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