Skip to main content

Obama administration sets record for censoring and denying transparency requests

Obama administration sets record for censoring and denying transparency requests

Share this story

The US censored and refused to provide more documents than ever last year while responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, according to an analysis of federal data performed by the Associated Press. The government responded to just over 647,000 FOIA requests last year, a 4 percent drop from the year prior. In just over 250,000 of those cases, it censored documents or refused to provide access to them outright — nearly two out of every five requests. Censoring, however, may range from a single phone number's removal to the redaction of nearly an entire page.

The government puts its success rate at 91 percent — still a record low under Obama

The Freedom of Information Act is a nearly 50-year-old law that allows any person to request records from the US government, which must turn them over in a timely fashion unless they are subject to a limited set of exceptions. The law plays a critical role in government transparency; unfortunately, this waning responsiveness hurts that, especially as broad conversations about government transparency continue due to a steady stream of leaked documents. The government, for its part, thinks that it isn't doing quite so poorly. The AP reports that the US says it released all or parts of documents in 91 percent of cases, but this discounts some requests and is still a record low under Obama.

It's also getting harder to get a response from the government after a request. The AP writes that the government cut around 9 percent of the full-time employees tasked with responding to records requests, bringing the total down to its lowest in five years. That comes as the government's backlog of requests sharply rises. At the end of 2014, there were more than 200,000 outstanding requests, a jump of 55 percent year over year. The government also messed up quite a bit. The AP reports that nearly one out of every three instances that it censored or withheld documents, it was incorrect to do so. However, those mistakes were only rectified after a challenge.

That's a big issue for journalists or anyone else trying to see what's happening inside the government. The AP notes that the government has made promises to improve disclosures, but there's no obvious sign of that happening. Given the ongoing conversations happening in the US, ensuring that documents are properly released is going to remain as important as ever.