President Barack Obama promised at the outset of his White House tenure that his would be the “most transparent administration in history,” but new data made public Friday suggests it has been the least transparent.
Federal officials said they couldn’t find any records for more than one in six, or nearly 130,000, Freedom of Information Act requests, setting a new record low, The Associated Press reported Friday.
“It seems like they’re doing the minimal amount of work they need to do,” Vice News investigative journalist Jason Leopold told AP. “I just don’t believe them. I really question the integrity of their search.”
Leopold sat on a panel of journalists who shared FOIA horror stories with lawmakers in June and said reporters often need to sue agencies before getting any records.
AP similarly reported instances where the government released tens of thousands of records following a lawsuit, after previously telling FOIA requesters they couldn’t find any documents. The Department of State, for example, told Gawker they couldn’t find any correspondence between Hillary Clinton aide Phillipe Reines and journalists, but found 90,000 records after a lawsuit.
Leopold also recently reported the Department of Justice previously lobbied heavily against FOIA reform moving through Congress.
The Obama administration answered more record requests and reduced its backlog, Department of Justice spokeswoman Beverly Lumpkin told AP. Additionally, the administration completed a 769,903 requests – a 19 percent increase over 2014 and a new record, AP reported.
Also, 77 percent of requests were either redacted or denied. That includes those where the requester refused to pay for records or when the government said they couldn’t find documents or that a request was either unreasonable or improper.
But the White House reported 93 percent, in fact, were released in full or in part, since they don’t include such caveats in their calculations.
Meanwhile, the inability to pay isn’t necessarily a requester’s stinginess. The Department of Defense said one FOIA request would cost $660 million – the price of an Australian island – the Center for Public Integrity recently reported.
Additionally, more than half of the federal agencies took longer to answer last year’s requests than in 2014.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate when someone waits months, or perhaps years, to get a response to their request – only to be told that the agency can’t find anything,” Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press attorney Adam Marshall told AP.
AP reviewed all 2015 requests to 100 federal agencies.
“It was impossible to know whether more requests last year involved non-existent files or whether federal workers were searching less than diligently before giving up to consider a case closed,” AP reported.