Obama’s Secrecy Problem
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, Apr. 15, 2016
When FOIA was passed in 1967—and strengthened in 1974—the law’s language required agencies to respond to requests for information within 10 business days. This was always a preposterous standard, and so the rule was extended to two months, which was also stretched, understandably so. But now the FOIA offices move at a snail’s pace, with requests routinely taking many months—and often a couple years—to process. (Requests for Mandatory Declassification Reviews, another method of unlocking data, take on average 224 days; when the requests are denied, appeals take, on average, another 296 days.)
To some degree, this is because of the crushing caseload in FOIA offices. Since Obama’s first year as president, annual requests for information have risen by 45 percent—from 500,000 to 715,000. Had Obama made FOIA the high priority that he signaled on his first day as president, he could have requested money to hire more FOIA personnel. Yet over this same period, the level of personnel has risen by only 3 percent, from 4,000 to 4,121. No wonder, then, that the backlog of cases has also swelled by 45 percent—from 70,777 to 102,828.
But the growing caseload isn’t the only reason for the slowdown. If the agencies had taken Obama’s 2009 memo seriously, they could have dealt with the burden by adopting a presumption to disclose. But they haven’t. In fact, agencies have grown more hostile to FOIA and they’ve been egged on in their resistance by the Department of Justice. In 2014, Congress was about to enact reforms that would have required agencies to loosen their strictures, but the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy lobbied against the measures. Anne Weismann, a former Justice Department official, now at the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, told me, “OIP sees their role as protecting agencies from intrusion.” Internal memoranda that Vice senior investigative reporter and information activist Jason Leopold obtained, ironically, under the Freedom of Information Act, confirmed the claim.
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