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Obama's White House Sets New Record in Rejecting FOIA Requests

Obama administration censored and denied access to government data more than ever in 2014, despite claims of 'most transparent presidency' ever

A new Associated Press analysis finds that the White House is answering fewer FOIA requests than ever. (Photo: Hindrik Sijens/flickr/cc)

For the second year in a row, the Obama administration has set a record in rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests, according to new analysis published Tuesday by the Associated Press.

The White House censored or denied access to government data 39 percent of the time, more often than ever before—and when officials did hand over information, it took them longer to do so, particularly if the files might be newsworthy. Over the past six years, the number of FOIA requests that were granted speedy processing statuses fell from almost 50 percent to less than one in eight, AP said.

In nearly one-third of cases, the White House acknowledged that it withheld or censored information unlawfully—but only made that admission when challenged.

By the end of 2014, the backlog of unanswered requests reached more than 200,000, an increase of 55 percent. Meanwhile, the number of staff responsible for responding to FOIA claims was slashed by 9 percent, or 375 people, to its smallest size ever.

The analysis comes amid Sunshine Week, during which civil liberties watchdogs promote increased government accountability. The AP's findings highlight President Barack Obama's failure to deliver on one of his signature campaign promises to create the most transparent administration in history.

Moreover, the administration announced earlier Tuesday that it would formalize a rule change exempting the Office of Administration from federal regulations requiring it to respond to FOIA requests. The Office of Administration handles White House record keeping.
The AP noted an interesting detail spotted among the files they successfully managed to obtain:

Under the president's instructions, the U.S. should not withhold or censor government files merely because they might be embarrassing, but federal employees last year regularly misapplied the law. In emails that AP obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration about who pays for Michelle Obama's expensive dresses, the agency blacked-out a sentence under part of the law intended to shield personal, private information, such as Social Security numbers, phone numbers or home addresses. But it failed to censor the same passage on a subsequent page.

The sentence: "We live in constant fear of upsetting the WH (White House)."

AP president Gary Pruitt criticized the government for its evasive policies in a column released last week. "What we discovered reaffirmed what we have seen all too frequently in recent years," Pruitt wrote. "The systems created to give citizens information about their government are badly broken and getting worse all the time."

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