FOI Update: DOJ hasn’t questioned a FOIA exemption in four years, didn’t respond for four months

Four seems to be the magic number for the Department of Justice.

The department told congressional investigators on June 10 it hasn’t questioned an agency’s decision to withhold information under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption for four years, and when confronted about its own outdated FOIA regulations, it didn’t respond for four months, according to the Washington Free Beacon.

A National Security Archive government-wide audit in December revealed that 56 federal agencies failed to update their FOIA regulations after Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum requesting an update in 2009.

Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) even noted the DOJ’s own regulations have not been updated since 2003.

But when Issa and Cummings called this to the DOJ’s attention in a February letter, the DOJ did not respond until June.

Principal deputy assistant attorney general Peter Kadzik wrote a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on June 10, saying the DOJ has not determined any FOIA exemptions improper since the Obama administration’s first year in office.

But the Free Beacon notes that Kadzik’s letter did not acknowledge Issa and Cumming’s findings that in 2011 alone, the DOJ fully denied 30,000 FOIA requests and partially denied another 171,000 requests. It also used exemption 5 to deny more FOIA requests even though the Justice Department itself notes that this exemption is riddled with “somewhat opaque language.”

An August 2012 Washington Post analysis showed the number of FOIA requests fully denied due to exemptions rose more than 10 percent last year, from 22,834 to 25,636. But free information isn’t the only thing at stake when the government issues exemptions, tax payers dollars are often dished out to cover costly legal fees when news organizations and other information requesters file FOIA lawsuits against the federal government.

The Free Beacon reports that the number of FOIA lawsuits has “increased dramatically under the Obama administration,” even compared to his tight-lipped predecessor.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) compared the last two years of President George W. Bush’s second term to the last two years of President Obama’s first term and found that FOIA lawsuits increased by 28 percent. The DOJ alone faced 50 percent more FOIA lawsuits, according to TRAC reports.

But in his letter to Issa and Cummings, Kadzik defended federal agencies, saying they have taken  “concrete steps to improve their FOIA administration.” The Free Beacon notes that the DOJ plans to publish its new FOIA guidelines later this year.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

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