The events main focus was highlighting the "federal government's progress in realizing the promise of the Freedom of Information Act" and to praise the positive steps taken in 2011 to reduce request backlogs, improve processes, and operate under a "presumption of openness."
this afternoon the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder
celebrated Sunshine Week by highlighting the federal government's progress
"in realizing the promise of the Freedom of Information Act." Holder
and four additional speakers pointed out what they called positive steps taken
in 2011 to reduce request backlogs, improve processes, and operate under a
"presumption of openness." This positive news was tempered by today's
Associated Press report that indicates that the federal government is still
struggling with FOIA backlogs.
touting the Department's accomplishments, Holder looked toward the future and
presented some improvements to FOIA currently being instituted by the DOJ. He
announced the DOJ will start posting monthly logs of FOIA requests made
to senior leadership offices. The logs will "publicly identify the subject
matter and disposition of each request" in an attempt to make it easier
for people to locate information they are interested in. The department is also
working on a new way for the public to submit and track FOIA requests to the
DOJ's senior leadership online.
the department is rolling out two new tools in an attempt to make FOIA.gov more
responsive; a simplified government-wide search function and an integrated FOIA
During the celebration, Holder touted "unprecedented efforts" on their behalf and praised iniatives launched 3 years ago that deal with "federal department and agency heads mandating changes in the way we approach, release, and distribute information."
Today and throughout the week, we have an
important opportunity to showcase and celebrate the progress that’s been made
here at the Department – and all across the federal government – in realizing
the promise of the Freedom of Information Act, and making good on what
President Obama has called “a profound national commitment to ensuring an open
This commitment – and the unprecedented
efforts that we’ve launched to fulfill it – underscores the sacred bond of
trust that must always exist between the government and all those we are
privileged to serve. This is what drove the President – on his first full
day in office – to call upon the Department of Justice to guide other agencies
in the faithful implementation of the Freedom of Information Act, and to ensure
compliance with both the letter – and the spirit – of this law.
In response, three years ago this week, I
issued a memorandum to federal department and agency heads mandating changes in
the way we approach, release, and distribute information. Since then,
these guidelines have shifted the way our entire federal government operates.
They’ve established a presumption of openness.And they have led agencies to manage
the FOIA process more efficiently and effectively, said Holder.
He goes on to say, "the Department has
achieved a release rate of more than 94 percent of requests where records were
processed for disclosure. And we released nearly 80 percent of these
records in their entirety." (Eric Holders full remarks can be found
However, the National Security Archive has strongly fired back saying Holder used discredited statistics at the event. They also note the DOJ has attempted to issue reductive regulations, waged a "war on leakers", and increasingly relied on several exemptions throughout Holder's tenure.
General Eric Holder kicked off Sunshine Week 2012 by rehashing widely
discredited statistics released by the Department of Justice after it was
awarded the Rosemary Award by the National Security Archive for the worst open
government performance by a federal agency in 2011.
speech, Holder stated that Department of Justice's work on FOIA was
"nothing short of remarkable," but –just as his recent speech on the
legality of assassinating Americansdid not mentionthe "targeted
killing" of al-Awlaki– Holder did not mention or refute his department's
Rosemary Award, or the reasons the DOJ was awarded it. His department's open
government failures included the DOJ Office of Information Policy's attempt to
issue new regulations that (among other steps backward) would haveallowed the
agency to lieto FOIA requesters and exclude online media from news media
reduced fee status; the "odd" argument made to the Supreme Court by
the DOJ's Assistant Solicitor General that the Freedom of Information Act
should become a withholding rather than a disclosure statute; and the DOJ's
"war on leakers" which has surely had a chilling effect upon –to use
Holder's own words– "the sacred bond of trust which must always exists
between the government and those we are privileged to serve."
did, however, repeat claims from aDepartment of Justice press releaseposted
just after being awarded the Rosemary Award, boasting of a 94 percent FOIA
release rate and a 26 percent reduction in FOIA backlog. ANational Security
Archive analysisof the DOJ's release rate shows that the DOJ excluded nine of
the eleven reasons that the Department denied documents to requesters from its
count. These include denials based upon: fees (pricing requesters out);
referrals (passing the request off to another agency while the requester still
waits); "no records" (very frequently the result of inadequate
searches by DOJ employees); and requests "improper for other reasons"
(which ostensibly include the "can neither confirm nor deny" glomar
Holder did not mention was that when the full eleven reasons for denial are
factored in, the Department of Justice's "release rate" is a much
more believable 56.7 percent. Melanie Pustay, head of the DOJ Office of
Information Policy since 2007, also spoke. She boasted that Department of FOIA
officials are using "new and creative" methods to improve FOIA
output. Unfortunately, these methods appear to include "new and
creative" math that obfuscates the true number of documents released under
FOIA in an attempt to portray the Department of Justice in a better light. Josh
Gerstein recently reported in Politico that one other "new and
creative" method that the Federal Bureau of Investigation used to reduce
its backlog was to simply close some requests even though the requesters
"may not always have been notified."
The four other speakers at the event were: Carolyn Colvin, Deputy Commissioner at the Social Security Administration. Austin Schlick, General Counsel and Chief FOIA Officer at the FCC. Darren Ash, CIO and Chief FOIA Officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Robert Howarth, Deputy Director of Correspondence, Document Production and FOIA Management at the Department of Interior.