Opinion: Federal government fails basic openness test

Why should filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government feel like tilting at a windmill?
Why should filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal government feel like tilting at a windmill?
(Anthony Russo / For The Times)

You’d think that if you were going to get a timely and adequate response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the federal government, it would be from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, which oversees the government’s compliance with FOIA requests.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong.

According to the FOIA Project, operated by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, the Office of Information Policy was one of 10 agencies that failed to adequately respond to a basic FOIA request, a remarkable failure rate -- that’s nearly half of the 21 agencies queried. Only seven of the agencies fully complied in a timely manner.

And what information was sought in those FOIA requests? “We asked for copies of the electronic files the FOIA offices themselves use to keep track of FOIA requests,” according to the FOIA Project’s website. Each agency got the same request, all submitted via the method each agency said it preferred (email, fax, or an online system).


The CIA flat out rejected the request it received, arguing that it would require an “unreasonable effort” because it would require “creation of a new record.” When the FOIA Project pointed out that federal law says electronic data is a record, the CIA still rejected the request, which the project is appealing.

The most responsive departments were the Army, Bureau of Land Management, Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and its Management Division, Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Three agencies never responded at all: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and two Justice Department offices, the Executive Office for United States Attorneys and the National Security Division.

The requests were made in late January. Under FOIA, agencies must respond to a request within a month, but in 2014 there was a governmentwide backlog of 160,000 requests. Each year the number of requests -- and the backlog -- grows.

And remember, this isn’t government information -- it’s the American public’s information. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that compliance is so weak under the Obama administration which, despite the president’s promises of openness, could well go down as one of the most secretive administrations in U.S. history.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.