Obama Administration Continues to Stick Its Info Where the Sun Doesn't Shine

"Transparency" continues to elude feds.


How many secrets are we keeping? That's classified, citizen.
Credit: Ninja M. / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Yesterday marked the launch of "Sunshine Week," an annual push by journalists and activists for more transparency from the government. At this point in President Barack Obama's administration, it's likely to be celebrated the same way as St. Patrick's Day: through heavy drinking.

The "most transparent administration ever" is still a big, shining lie. The Associated Press analyzed the latest data in the federal government's responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in 2013 and found it censoring or denying access to more records than ever. From the Associated Press:

The government's own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that half way through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records despite its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history.

In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government's efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.

In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama's first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times. The Defense Department, including the NSA, and the CIA accounted for nearly all those. The Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency cited national security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency did twice and the National Park Service once.

And five years after Obama directed agencies to less frequently invoke a "deliberative process" exception to withhold materials describing decision-making behind the scenes, the government did it anyway, a record 81,752 times.

The AP counted more than 700,000 FOIA requests in 2013. Of those requests, 36 percent were denied or the documents provided were censored. The revelations about National Security Agency metadata collection revealed by Edward Snowden prompted a host of FOIA requests:

The AP could not determine whether the administration was abusing the national security exception or whether the public asked for more documents about sensitive subjects. The NSA said its 138 percent surge in records requests were from people asking whether it had collected their phone or email records, which it generally refuses to confirm or deny. To do otherwise, the NSA said, would pose an "an unacceptable risk" because terrorists could check to see whether the U.S. had detected their activities. It censored records or fully denied access to them in 4,246 out of 4,328 requests, or 98 percent of the time.

In the run-up to Sunshine Week, the National Security Archives determined that more than half of all government agencies are ignoring directives by Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to operate on a "presumption of disclosure," a directive issued in 2009. The Washington Post notes that this is still a 20 percentage point improvement over last year. The Post also noted the typical horrendous speed and lack of responsiveness by the federal government to adapt to its own regulations:

The National Security Archives also found that nearly half of all federal agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations to comply with 2007 amendments Congress made to the law. The changes require agencies to cooperate with a new FOIA ombudsman in the Office of Government Information Services and report specific data on FOIA output, among other provisions.

More information about Sunshine Week can be found here. The week has kicked off with a snowstorm in Washington, D.C., which is God's own way of letting us know how things stand.