US citing security to censor more public records

Tuesday - 3/12/2013, 3:28am EDT

JACK GILLUM
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration answered more requests from the public to see government records under the Freedom of Information Act last year, but more often than it ever has it cited legal exceptions to censor or withhold the material, according to a new analysis by The Associated Press. It frequently cited the need to protect national security and internal deliberations.

The AP's analysis showed the government released all or portions of the information that citizens, journalists, businesses and others sought at about the same rate as the previous three years. It turned over all or parts of the records in about 65 percent of all requests. It fully rejected more than one-third of requests, a slight increase over 2011, including cases when it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the request was determined to be improper.

The AP examined more than 5,600 data elements measuring the administration's performance on government transparency since Obama's election.

People submitted more than 590,000 requests for information in fiscal 2012 -- an increase of less than 1 percent over the previous year. Including leftover requests from previous years, the government responded to more requests than ever in 2012 -- more than 603,000 -- a 5 percent increase for the second consecutive year.

When the government withheld or censored records, it cited exceptions built into the law to avoid turning over materials more than 479,000 times, a roughly 22 percent increase over the previous year. In most cases, more than one of the law's exceptions was cited in each request for information.

The government's responsiveness under the FOIA is widely viewed as a barometer of the federal offices' transparency. Under the law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas.

The AP's review comes at the start of the second term for Obama, who promised during his first week in office that the nation's signature open-records law would be "administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails." The review examined figures from the largest federal departments and agencies. Sunday was the start of Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a statement that during the past year, the government "processed more requests, decreased the backlog, improved average processing times and disclosed more information pro-actively." Schultz said the improvements "represent the efforts of agencies across the government to meet the president's commitment to openness. While there is more work to be done, this past year demonstrates that agencies are responding to the president's call for greater transparency."

In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times -- a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama's first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.

Other federal agencies that invoked the national security exception included the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence, NASA, Office of Management and Budget, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.

U.S. courts are loath to overrule the administration whenever it cites national security. A federal judge, Colleen McMahon of New York, in January ruled against The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union to see records about the government's legal justification for drone attacks and other methods it has used to kill terrorism suspects overseas, including American citizens. She cited an "Alice in Wonderland" predicament in which she was expected to determine what information should be revealed but unable to challenge the government's secrecy claim. Part of her ruling was sealed and made available only to the government's lawyers.

"I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules -- a veritable Catch-22," the judge wrote. "I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret."