(AP) The people’s right to know under the Freedom of Information Act is being undermined by bureaucrats who face few consequences for denying or delaying requests for information, a House panel was told Wednesday.
Media witnesses recommended changes embodied in several bills now before Congress, including creating a government office to oversee compliance with FOIA requests and imposing meaningful deadlines for agency responses.
Since the law was enacted in 1966, “there has been a shift away from a presumption of openness which has been at the core of FOIA,” Jay Smith, president of Cox Newspapers Inc. and chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, said in prepared testimony.
“There is a fixed culture within government that the information belongs to the agencies, not American citizens,” he told the House Government Reform Committee’s government management subcommittee.
A Government Accountability Office analysis of FOIA requests showed wide disparities among federal agencies. While 90 percent of requests made in 2004 were granted, three agencies handling more complex or security-related matters — the State Department, the CIA and the National Science Foundation — made full grants of requested records less than 20 percent of the time.
Agencies can cite nine exemptions in declining a request, including national security or defense matters, personnel or medical files, or law enforcement records.
Backlogs were up, with time needed to process requests varying from less than 10 days to more than 100, the congressional auditors found.
Mark Tapscott, director of the Heritage Foundation’s center for media and public policy, said the system’s two major problems are a lack of serious consequences for not responding to FOIA requests and the absence of a neutral arbiter to mediate disputes between agencies and those making requests.
Tapscott said journalists, asked why they don’t file more FOIA requests, invariably say: “It wastes too much time and they probably won’t disclose what I need without a big legal fight, which my paper can’t afford, so why bother?”
Several lawmakers, including Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have introduced bills that would tighten FOIA compliance deadlines, levy penalties on agencies that miss deadlines, and set up a government ombudsman office to monitor compliance.
Cox’s Smith said Congress should increase the amount of government information provided online and create electronic tracking services so the public can follow the status of requests.
The GAO report said that in fiscal 2004 the 25 agencies it surveyed received 4 million FOIA requests, up 25% from the previous year. The Veterans Affairs Department gets about half of the requests, with veterans seeking military or medical records. The next busiest was the Social Security Administration, with many citizens seeking genealogical information.