Others’ Opinion: Information denials are outrageous

Published 9:33 am Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mankato Free Press

The Associated Press

The record number of denials citizens face when asking for public information is once again astounding, disappointing and maddening.

Email newsletter signup

A report on federal Freedom of Information Act requests showed another record number of requests from the media and the public, but it also unfortunately showed a denial rate that is spiraling upward. The report was released last week during Sunshine Week for news organizations — a time to focus on openness in government.

Whenever the public is denied information, democracy suffers. A government that seems to reinforce barriers to information will soon lose legitimacy. Both are troubling trends that can be discerned from the latest report on access to public information.

An in-depth analysis by the Associated Press shows the Obama administration denying Freedom of Information requests and “censoring government files” at a record level. The government’s obfuscation involved delaying release of records far beyond a reasonable time period, saying it couldn’t find information more regularly and regarding some requests as unreasonable.

At the end of 2014, there were 200,000 unanswered requests for information, a 55 percent increase from the previous year. It’s no surprise the backlog is growing. The government reduced by 375 the number of employees working to process those requests. That’s a 9 percent drop.

The government report on access shows some 700,000 requests by citizens, journalists and businesses, another record number. And while the government spent $434 million trying to process those requests, it spent $28 million on lawyers’ fees trying to keep records secret. Of the 650,000 requests the government did respond to, it denied or censored nearly 40 percent of them.

In one case, The Associated Press requested information from the Treasury Department to find out what was involved in U.S. economic sanctions of Iran. They got a 237 report back nine years after the request, and it was completely blacked out.

The Obama White House tried to put a positive spin on its own analysis saying that requests it considers unreasonable shouldn’t be counted. By that measure, the government provided some or all information in 91 percent of all requests. That’s quite a stretch of the imagination.

The White House did concede that in one of three cases, it was partially or completely wrong in denying a request but only after it had been challenged.

By law, most government records are deemed to be open to the public unless they reveal private information like Social Security numbers, contain business trade secrets or release of records would somehow threaten national security.

But information in government reports like who pays for Michelle Obama’s expensive dresses and the nature of Hillary Clinton’s emails as secretary of state are supposed to be public. Yet, the information has been denied or deleted.

News organizations, the public and business are supposed to get most of the public information for the price of copying it, but we know all parties spend millions on lawyers going to court to challenge information denials.

The annual report on access to government records should be an opportunity for any administration to show its willingness to engage its citizens in a decision-making democracy where the public and news organizations can gather information to improve how the government works. It should be an opportunity for an administration to prove its transparency and bolster the public’s confidence.

And despite promises that the Obama administration was going to be the most transparent in history, the record shows a different picture.