Least Transparent Administration
in History

FOIA lawsuits rise under Obama, study shows


The number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits filed against the federal government has increased dramatically under the Obama administration, according to a December study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

A comparison between the last two years of President George W. Bush’s second term and the last two years of President Barack Obama’s first term shows FOIA lawsuits jumped by 28 percent, TRAC reports.

FOIA lawsuits are filed to challenge denials of records requests or the use of exemptions of information by federal agencies.

The number of FOIA lawsuits filed against the State Department rose by 111 percent in those time periods, from 18 to 38. FOIA lawsuits rose by 60 percent at both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Additionally, the Department of Justice saw an increase by 50 percent.

Obama pledged to usher in an unprecedented era of transparency and openness in government, but the rise in FOIA lawsuits “adds credence to the criticism of some activists about the Obama Administration’s actual commitment to this goal,” TRAC wrote.

Transparency advocates say federal agencies have largely ignored the executive branch’s directives and memos.

“I think if agencies were updating their regulations and complying with the law better, some of those lawsuits wouldn’t be necessary,” said Patrice McDermott, the executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, at a conference on government transparency Thursday.

A government-wide audit performed by the National Security Archive found 62 of 99 federal agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since Attorney General Eric Holder issued a 2009 memorandum instructing them to do so.

The audit also revealed that 56 agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since the passage of the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which mandated agencies retool their FOIA offices, including fee structures and reporting.

Holder has done little to implement those guidelines four years after issuing them, and his Justice Department has defended all agencies that choose to withhold information from the public, a report on FOIAproject.org found.

Melanie Ann Pustay, director of the Office of Information Policy at the Department of Justice, told Bloomberg News the figures may reflect an increase in the number of FOIA requests made to agencies since 2009.

A Bloomberg investigation found “19 of 20 cabinet-level agencies disobeyed the law requiring the disclosure of public information.”

“In all, just 8 of the 57 federal agencies met Bloomberg’s request for those documents within the 20-day window required by the Act,” Bloomberg reported in September 2012.

An August 2012 Washington Post analysis found that early freedom of information progress by the Obama administration “stalled and, in the case of most departments, reversed in direction.”

The number of FOIA requests denied in full due to exemptions rose more than 10 percent last year, to 25,636 from 22,834 the previous year, according to the Post’s analysis.

“Obama is the sixth administration that’s been in office since I’ve been doing Freedom of Information Act work. … It’s kind of shocking to me to say this, but of the six, this administration is the worst on FOIA issues. The worst. There’s just no question about it,” Katherine Meyer, a Washington lawyer who’s been filing FOIA cases since 1978, told Politico in March 2012. “This administration is raising one barrier after another. … It’s gotten to the point where I’m stunned—I’m really stunned.”

CJ Ciaramella   Email CJ | Full Bio | RSS
CJ Ciaramella is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon, he was a reporter for the Daily Caller. He was also a Collegiate Network year-long fellow at the San Diego Union-Tribune and has written articles for the Weekly Standard and Oregon Quarterly. Ciaramella attended the University of Oregon, where he edited the award-winning student magazine, the Oregon Commentator. He lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @cjciaramella. His email address is ciaramella@freebeacon.com.