Senate Acts, Bureaucrats Stall on FOIA Requests

By Mike Mitchell And JR Santo

Aug 20, 2007 3:52pm

Just days after the Senate unanimously passed the OPEN Government Act, a new report asserts that information grants from federal agencies to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) solicitations remain infrequent and limited. "There’s always been a tendency for agencies to look at information as their own and be possessive about it," said Pete Weitzel of the Coalition of Journalists for an Open Government, a government watchdog group that produced the report.  According to the analysis, of all FOIA requests processed by the government in 2006, only 64 percent received information grants, and less than two-thirds of these recipients received full grants, or grants that hand over all requested information. The lowest response rate ever recorded for a given year is 63 percent, set in 2005. The report also states that backlog — requests not processed at all during a given year — hit a record high of 39 percent in 2006, even though the number of incoming requests hit a record low.  Although the government has allocated more taxpayer dollars to FOIA-related expenses over the years, efficiency in response service has declined. Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. Weitzel believes that some solutions to government secrecy "will follow the passage of the OPEN Government Act," which passed in the Senate two weeks ago and contains the first major reforms to FOIA in over a decade. The Act, if passed in the House, plans to create a FOIA ombudsman position and restore meaningful FOIA deadlines across all federal agencies. He also calls for the "full implementation of the president’s executive order from December 2005," in which President Bush urged government agencies to improve their FOIA services. According to the Coalition, most agencies repeatedly miss the 20-day deadline for responding to information requests. In fact, some agencies missed the government’s annual deadline for reporting their FOIA performance data by up to four months. FOIA solicitations in recent years have induced the release of significant information, such as last year’s release of video footage showing the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. While the Coalition calculates a 42 percent decrease in full grants from 1998 to 2006, their portrait of the government’s FOIA services may be overly condemnatory. The group’s analysis ignores that fewer overall requests were submitted in 2006 which accounts for much of the decrease in grants. The true percentage of decline in full grants is actually only 15 percent. Nevertheless, the group’s fundamental analysis reveals a growing problem with FOIA responses. "You can look at these numbers in a lot of different ways," Weitzel told the Blotter on ABCNews.com when asked about this calculation. "I thought the way we did it highlighted it more dramatically." Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

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