Exemption 10

Freedom of Information Act: Requests and denials climb, backlog slows

Posted: June 20, 2013 | Tags: FOIA

The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provides that government agency records are open to the public. Access can provide insight into such things as how taxpayer money is spent and what correspondence reveals about relationships between Congress and government agencies or between the agencies and private parties. However, this flow of information can be limited by nine exemptions, including those for national security, privacy and law enforcement reasons.

The data below show FOIA activity by year based on the reporting by 13 federal agencies, with the exception of requests to Veterans Affairs and the Health and Human Services departments, both of which tend to get more requests by individuals interested in their own records. Such requests are more likely to be granted than overall requests are. At the VA, for example, more than 70 percent of requests were granted last year, but overall, the government granted 63 percent of requests in full.

What we found in reviewing the data from the last 15 years:

Requests climb during Obama’s terms

FOIA requests dropped during President George W. Bush’s terms in office but began to climb after Barack Obama was elected. The backlog of requests was almost 40 percent in 2006 but has now shrunk to 17 percent of the total.


Government cites privacy most often when denying FOIA requests

The most frequently cited reason for denying records is privacy. Agencies used the privacy exemptions more than 232,000 times last year or 53 percent of all the reasons for denying information. That is the highest use of privacy exemptions since fiscal year 2002. Our look at the data since 1998 shows that requests are rising again after dropping dramatically during the second Bush administration.

Privacy, law enforcement exemptions over the years

FOIA requests were denied under the privacy exemption in 2012 in more than 232,000 cases, or 53 percent of all requests, the highest level since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Privacy exemptions include "personnel and medical files and similar files" when the disclosure of such information "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or protection for law enforcement information, the disclosure of which "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Source: Annual FOIA reports by 13 cabinet-level departments, excluding Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services

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No, government is not too open

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iFOIA's new site features tracking

Since 1996 the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has offered a free letter-generating service to provide users with the correct language and structure for FOIA requests. Over the past year the committee looked for ways to expand this tool to better serve reporters. In recognition of the fact that a single investigation can require hundreds of FOIA requests, they sought to make it easier for journalists to track and organize records requests.

“Reporters are always trying to remember where they’ve submitted requests, how much time has passed since they made the request and who they need to follow up with,” said Emily Grannis of the new ifOIA website.

Privacy vs. the public's right to know

Scholars and watchdog groups say the federal government — and the Supreme Court — have slowly expanded privacy rights beyond the guidelines established in FOIA. Supreme Court decisions in five FOIA cases shed light on how the government came to value privacy interests over the public’s right to know.

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