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FOIA requests dropped in 2009

By Ed O'Keefe

Formal requests for federal data and information dropped by more than 47,000 in fiscal 2009 compared with the previous year, a drop the Obama administration ties to its decision to post more government data online.

Federal agencies and departments received a combined 557,825 Freedom of Information Act requests in the fiscal year that ended in September, down from 605,491 requests the previous year, the Justice Department reported Friday. The Department of Homeland Security received 103,093 requests, the most of any agency, followed by the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments.

Academics, journalists and good-government groups have long panned the FOIA process as a tedious, lengthy ordeal that can drag out for years. A March report by the National Security Archive found that less than a third of the 90 federal agencies that process requests have significantly changed their FOIA practices since President Obama ordered them to "adopt a presumption in favor" of requests on his first full day in office.

But the Justice Department said the government's FOIA backlog dropped last year by almost 56,000 requests, down from about 133,200 in 2008 -- a 40 percent reduction and the first year for which yearly comparisons are available. Despite the drop, the Pentagon has a pending request from December 1992 and the Treasury Department is still considering one from from September 1999.

Obama administration officials credited the government's Data.gov Web site for helping reduce the need for formal information requests. The Web site launched in May 2009 as part of President Obama's Open Government Initiative and includes more than 250,000 data sets.

“We anticipate affirmatively putting out much more data," White House Special Counsel Norm Eisen said in an interview.

"We have put online an enormous expansion of data that’s available to the public, the media and experts to use. With that data comes great benefits for individuals, families and the economy," Eisen said.

National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton agreed that Data.gov and other efforts have helped, but said that "people are pretty discouraged and may have walked away."

Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, noted that Data.gov and other government sites still lack meaningful accountability information from some agencies, including data about the government's response to the BP oil spill and general oil industry regulation information.

"There’s a lot of federal agency inertia that makes this difficult, so it’s not as if this is an easy thing to get government to do, and the administration deserves credit for trying," Allison said. "But we’d like to see a lot more information than we’ve seen so far."

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By Ed O'Keefe  | June 7, 2010; 1:10 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Oversight  
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