Government can't keep up with information requests

By Ted Bridis

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 12 2012 2:15 a.m. MDT

The biggest increases were at offices within the Department of Homeland Security that deal with immigration files. Overall, DHS received more than twice as many requests for records — 175,656 new requests last year — as any other agency. The Defense Department was second with 74,117 new requests. Smaller government offices, such as the White House drug policy office and the Council on Environmental Quality, received only a few dozen requests each.

The surge for immigration records at the Homeland Security Department meant the government ended the year with 98,183 backlogged requests, an increase of nearly 14 percent over the backlog of 86,370 at the start of the year, according to AP's review. DHS itself accounted for 48,493 of those backlogged requests at year's end.

In another improvement, the government less frequently cited any of the nine exemptions in the law that allow it to keep records secret, especially one that shields materials about an agency's internal personnel rules and practices. The Supreme Court in March 2011 issued a ruling that overturned 30 years of precedent and restricted when the government can use the exemption.

The administration also less frequently invoked the "deliberative process" exemption to withhold records describing decision-making behind the scenes. President Barack Obama had directed agencies to use it less often, but the number of such cases had surged after his first year in office to more than 71,000. It fell last year to 43,731.

At the Justice Department, however — which is responsible for ensuring that agencies comply with Obama's orders to be more transparent — officials invoked the exemption 1,500 times last year, an increase from 1,231 times the previous year.

The Justice Department riled open government advocates last year when it proposed formalizing the practice, in some situations, of federal law enforcement agencies telling people who request records that the government doesn't have the records when it actually does. Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, threatened to block the proposal from ever taking effect. The department eventually abandoned the idea.

Wars, terrorists and spies bucked the trend. During the year when American troops were involved in two wars and a bombing campaign in Libya, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a daring raid, and U.S. drones killed scores of terror suspects and insurgents, the administration more aggressively protected federal files that it said should be shielded due to national security reasons. The government invoked that explanation 4,244 times last year — a significant increase over the 3,615 times it did so in 2010. The CIA, Director of National Intelligence and departments of defense, justice, state and homeland security were responsible for nearly all those cases.

The 37 agencies that AP examined were: Agency for International Development, CIA, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Agriculture Department, Commerce Department, Defense Department, Education Department, Energy Department, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Interior Department, Justice Department, Labor Department, State Department, Transportation Department, Treasury Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Election Commission, Federal Trade Commission, NASA, National Science Foundation, National Transportation Safety Board, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Office of Management and Budget, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Office of Personnel Management, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Securities and Exchange Commission, Small Business Administration, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

Online:

FOIA.gov: http://www.foia.gov

Sunshine Week: http://www.sunshineweek.org

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