An annual report by the Associated Press shows the Obama administration’s claim to be the most transparent ever to be a categorically untrue.
A review of all Freedom of Information Act requests to 100 federal agencies during fiscal 2015 revealed a record for the number of times the White House couldn’t find a single page requested by journalists and citizens.
Government researchers “completed” 129,825 requests – one in six cases – by telling individuals or organizations they came up empty-handed, AP reported Friday. Approximately 77 percent of all requests were closed out after censored or blank files were released, a jump of 12 percent since Obama first took office.
“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,” Adam Marshall, an attorney with the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the news service.
AP said the Obama administration had a peculiar habit of finding documents after organizations filed expensive federal lawsuits. When Gawker sued the State Department over documents related to former Secretary of Hillary Clinton’s aide Philippe Reines, for example, the Obama administration suddenly found 90,000 documents; it had initially found zero.
“I want to avoid FOIA,” Reines said in one email, which his lawyer later claimed was a joke.
The federal government is supposed to undertake a good-faith effort in finding documents, but there is no way for journalists or citizens to know if that actually happened.
“It seems like they’re doing the minimal amount of work they need to do,” said Jason Leopold, an investigative reporter at Vice News and a leading expert on the records law, AP reported. “I just don’t believe them. I really question the integrity of their search.”
The White House defends its efforts by saying it completed a record 769,903 requests last fiscal year, a 19 percent increase over 2014. AP was quick to note, however, that government employees also increased the number of times they could not find anything by 35 percent.
Some of the other findings from the report include:
- The FBI failed to find records in 39 percent of cases, or 5,168 times.
- The Environmental Protection Agency regional office that oversees New York and New Jersey failed to find records 58 percent of the time.
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection were unsuccessful in finding results in 34 percent of cases.
- That government counted 250,024 times when it could not find records, a person refused to pay for documents or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest tried to deflect attention away form Obama and onto Congress.
“Congress writes the rules and they write themselves out of being accountable,” Earnest told reporters, AP reported. “[Reporters should] continue the pressure that [they] have applied to Congress to encourage them to subject themselves to the same kinds of transparency rules that they insist other government agencies follow.”