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January 23, 2009

Bush v. FOIA

Is it possible to prove how much the Bush administration impeded the Freedom of Information Act? Put another way: just how hostile was it?

Pretty darn hostile, a quick-and-dirty Suits & Sentences review shows. Consider: the Defense Department completely granted 61 percent of FOIA requests in Fiscal 1998. In Fiscal 2007, the Defense  Department completely granted only 48 percent of FOIA requests. And the Pentagon wasn't alone. The Interior Department fully granted 64 percent of FOIA requests in 1998 but only 47 percent in 2007.

The invaluable annual FOIA reports filed by federal agencies provide the numbers. Let's take a second, in honor of President Obama's newly declared commitment to FOIA, to delve a little deeper.

Remember: then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had essentially encouraged federal agencies in October 2001 to take a parsiminous approach to FOIA requests, promising Justice would defend agencies challenged by pesky info-seekers. One might expect, then, that outright FOIA denials would increase while complete FOIA access would fall compared to the Clinton administration years. (We'll ignore partial grants for the moment.)

So, what happened? Sure enough, denials were up and grants were down.

                                                             FISCAL 2007: BUSH


Agriculture              31,651                     2.4%                 85%

CIA                          3,031                    19%                    11%     

Commerce               1,949                      7%                    39%

Defense                  78,392                     3%                    48%     

Interior                      5,437                     3%                     47%
Justice                    53,889                     3%                     41%

State                         4,792                     4%                      9%

Treasury                  28,785                     1.6%                  52%

                                                             FISCAL 1998: CLINTON


Agriculture             88,204                          2.5%                 95%

Commerce              2,283                          4.5%                 58%

CIA                         7,169                        13%                    44%

Defense               106,191                         2%                    61%

Interior                     5,002                         5.5%                 64%

Justice                 195,105                         1.6%                 33%

State                        2,317                        4%                    28%

Treasury                    1,775                        2%                   59%

Note on method: the agency's annual reports identify the number of requests processed. They also identify the "disposition of initial requests," as either granted, denied, or partially granted. The number of initial requests in the "disposition of initial requests" does not necessarily add up to the number of processed requests.


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Why the uptick in Justice grants (despite an increase in denials)?

Michael Doyle

Good question, and I'm wondering the same. I will be looking at other federal agencies, to see if they follow the pattern, then hope to compare other years. I don't know if FY 07 was an outlier (and complete reports are not yet readily available for 08)


Look behind the numbers. Was there an actual supportable reason for the increased denials by the Bush people? If so then the raw numbers aren't as probative as you'd presume; if not then perhaps the numbers are meaningful. Were there more requests for information that would have been denied by one of the statutory exemptions to FOIA requests? If so then there's a good reason for the decreased grants. Give us the whole story; tell us what the exemptions are to granting FOIA requests, why they're there, what they mean in effect, any judicial opinions on what the meanings of these exemptions are and how far they go.

KT Johnson

Re: Grants up but denials down pattern -- They're probably chipping away at their backlog from previous years. The plan for doing that is on DOJ's site along with the 2008 FOIA report.

If you're looking for an expert source to end all expert sources on FOIA issues, Google Daniel Metcalfe. He's now a law professor at American University specializing in this area and until recently ran DOJ's FOIA operation. He's on the record as being very critical of the Bush policies and practices. AU's site has his email and office phone plus links to relevant articles he's published.

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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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