Transparency Failure

Half of fed agencies not complying with FOIA law


Nearly half of all federal agencies have not updated their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) regulations since President Barack Obama took office, despite pledges by the president and Attorney General Eric Holder to modernize and improve government transparency efforts.

An audit by the National Security Archive found 50 out of 101 federal 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.

Additionally, 55 agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations since Holder directed them in a March 2009 FOIA memorandum to remove "unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles" and operate under a presumption of disclosure.

The numbers are a slight improvement over last year’s NSA audit, which found that 56 agencies had not updated their FOIA regulations since 2007.

The Federal Trade Commission holds the record for most-ancient FOIA regulations. The agency has not updated them since 1975.

The House unanimously passed a bill to reform FOIA last month. The bill would require agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days.

The White House also announced a two-year plan to create "core FOIA regulation and common set of practices [that] would make it easier for requesters to understand and navigate the FOIA process and easier for the government to keep regulations up to date."

However, transparency advocates worry the regulations are being crafted by the Justice Department.

The last time the Justice Department proposed new FOIA rules was in 2011.  Transparency advocates and a bipartisan group of legislators opposed the proposed rules, arguing they would have allowed federal agencies to lie about the existence of public records. The proposal was withdrawn.

"Both Congress and the White House now recognize the problem of outdated FOIA regulations, and that is something to celebrate," National Security Archive director Tom Blanton said in a statement. "But new regs should not follow the Justice Department's terrible lead, they must follow the best practices already identified by the FOIA ombuds office and FOIA experts."

The National Security Archive, which works to obtain and catalogue declassified government documents, released the audit to mark Sunshine Week.

Another recent review by the Center for Effective Government gave half of the agencies it surveyed failing grades for their FOIA compliance.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.