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Federal agencies struggling to meet order on releasing public records

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WASHINGTON >> Dozens of federal agencies are struggling to meet President Barack Obama’s 2-year-old order that requires the government to respond more quickly and thoroughly to request for records under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, a study finds.

The report by the Washington-based National Security Archive determined that 41 of 90 federal agencies have yet to make concrete changes to their FOIA procedures under Obama’s order. That’s down from 77 one year ago, but still cause for concern half way through Obama’s first term, said Eric Newton of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which financed the study. The archive is a public interest group that uses the law frequently to obtain federal records.

The day after his inauguration in January 2009, Obama reversed a Bush-era policy of defending any legal reason to withhold information and directed agencies to release records whose disclosure wasn’t barred by law or wouldn’t cause foreseeable harm.

“At this rate, the president’s first term in office will be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office,” Newton said.

Steven Croley, special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy, said the White House has made significant progress toward putting the directive in place. “Many agencies across the government have taken substantial steps to improve their administration of FOIA,” he said.

The study was released Sunday to commemorate Sunshine Week, an annual observance by news organizations to promote open government and freedom of information.

The archive submitted requests to 90 federal agencies seeking information about their compliance with Obama’s order and with a subsequent March 2010 memorandum from senior White House officials directing agencies to improve their handling of requests from citizens, journalists, companies and others.

The survey showed that 13 agencies — including the departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, and Treasury — made major improvements in responsiveness and by posting information on their websites. These agencies also updated their FOIA regulations, manuals and training materials to comply with Obama’s directive.

Others showed little or no changes. The U.S. Postal Service said it had “no responsive records” to the archive’s request. The departments of Justice, Commerce and Energy, along with the CIA and 13 other agencies, were still working on the archive’s records request 117 business days after it was received. The law requires a response in 20 business days.

The Justice Department has responsibility for ensuring government-wide compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Four agencies, including the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Legal Services Corporation, never acknowledged receiving the archive’s request despite numerous calls and faxes, the study said.

Croley said the lack of a response from an agency to the archive’s FOIA “does not establish they have done nothing.”

National Security Archive: Justice Department:
White House:
Sunshine Week:

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