March 27, 2012 | By Trevor Timm

This Week in Transparency: Faulty FOIA

Issa Report Gives Federal Government C-minus on FOIA Processing

The US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Darrell Issa (R-CA), released a report (pdf) that graded the federal government and its agencies on their ability to manage FOIA requests. We've documented extensively the lack of transparency in the current administration, and, for advocates following the issue, there was no surprise that the Committee's report gave the federal government a C-minus. In addition to the government's C-minus grade overall, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) each individually received D’s.

To conduct the report, Rep. Issa sought information about the FOIA tracking systems of 100 federal agencies. In particular, Rep. Issa requested an electronic, sortable copy of the agency’s FOIA processing “logs,” containing various information on requests and the agency’s processing of those requests. Many agencies produced incomplete logs, produced logs that tracked FOIA requests inconsistently, or couldn’t produce logs in a sortable electronic format at all. The report concluded with an ominous warning: "When agencies cannot even produce FOIA logs with basic information to Congress, it raises serious concerns about their ability to meet their legal obligations to FOIA requesters."

 

Administration Officials Defend Against FOIA Faults

After the release of the above-mentioned report, on March 21 a subcommittee of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing titled, "FOIA in the 21st Century: Using Technology to Improve Transparency in Government." The hearing focused on the creation of a central FOIA website for citizens to access unified FOIA instructions, but also saw witnesses defending their FOIA stats. Witnesses included administration officials from the Department of Justice, the National Archives, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Melanie Pustay, the Director of DOJ’s FOIA office, defended the government's transparency record stating that the government released records in part or in full in response to 93.1% of requests where records were located and processed for disclosure. However, releasing records, and releasing meaningful records, are often two distinct things. EFF frequently receives records that disclose virtually nothing about the topic or that have such substantial (and often arbitrary) redactions that the records are meaningless.

While the centralized FOIA website is a step in a more transparent direction, DOJ should start by concentrating on making meaningful responses to FOIA requests.

Push for Transparency in Bradley Manning Court-Martial

On Thursday, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lawyer who represents Wikileaks and Julian Assange, called (pdf) on the military court in Bradley Manning's case to release documents relating to Manning's military trial. Ratner pointed to the presumption in military law of public court martials and the public’s compelling interest in access to the trial and court documents.

Ratner's letter follows a March 12 letter, (pdf) spearheaded by the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press and signed by more than 40 news organizations, to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense requesting DOD implement measures that will allow media organizations to review documents relating to the Manning case. The organizations asked DOD to immediately post all filings, decisions, and transcripts that don't require full classification online; to post those that do need classification review within 15 days; and to adopt other measures that will enhance the public’s access to Manning’s court-martial.


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