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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Agencies slow in following Obama’s openness order

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is having difficulty getting all federal agencies to follow his order to deliver “a new era of open government,” according to a study of how they administer the Freedom of Information Act.

The National Security Archive, a private group that publishes declassified government information and uses the act and lawsuits to pry out official records, found a decidedly mixed record in an audit of how 90 agencies responded to Obama directives to open more records, and the guidelines and training sessions that followed from the Justice Department.

Rescinding a Bush policy of defending any legal reason to withhold information, Obama ordered agencies to release any information whose disclosure wasn’t prohibited by law or wouldn’t cause foreseeable harm.

The audit was released Sunday, the first day of Sunshine Week, an annual observance by journalism organizations to promote open government and freedom of information.

The Obama administration “has clearly stated a new policy direction for open government but has not conquered the challenge of communicating and enforcing that message throughout the executive branch,” the report concluded.

Among the findings the archive found most troubling were:

Ancient requests still linger, and 33 of the 90 agencies now have an older unfulfilled request than they did Sept. 30, 2008.

Five agencies reported releasing less and withholding more information during the 2009 budget year, which includes the first nine months of the Obama administration, than they did the previous year.

35 of the 90 agencies told the auditors they had no records of putting in place the new Obama FOIA policies.

The oldest pending request the auditors found is approaching 18 years old. It was submitted Sept. 21, 1992, by the National Security Archive itself to the National Archives and Records Administration for files on nuclear arms control and test information from 1959-61. The audit said the request is probably languishing at the Energy Department and the Air Force because the National Archives must refer requests to the agencies where the information originated.

On a positive note, the audit found that 20 of the 90 agencies had improved the date of their oldest open request from 2008 by more than one month, and the CIA improved its oldest request by nearly a year and a half.

The auditors also found that four agencies – the departments of Justice and Agriculture, the Office of Management and Budget and the Small Business Administration – had both increased the number of requests that got all or part of the documents sought and decreased the number that were completely denied, compared with 2008.

But the departments of State, Transportation and the Treasury, along with NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office granted full or partial releases to fewer requests and completely denied more requests than the year before.

The auditors found 13 of the 90 agencies could document concrete changes to their FOIA practices as a result of Obama’s policy and another 14 had enhanced their training about Obama’s presumption of disclosure.