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Only half of agencies meet Obama FOIA standards

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About half of federal agencies have taken steps required by a White House Freedom of Information Act memo issued a year ago, says a March 14 report from the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

The memo (.pdf), issued on March 16, 2010 by then-Chief of Staff Rham Emanuel and White House Counsel Bob Bauer, called on agencies to update their FOIA guidance and training materials in accordance with an earlier memo issued by President Barack Obama that told agencies to assume a presumption in favor of disclosure when faced with a FOIA request. The Emanuel-Bauer memo also called on agencies to assess whether they devoted adequate resources in responding to FOIA requests.

The National Security Archive sent out FOIA requests itself to 90 agencies asking for records demonstrating compliance; 49 responded with evidence of having undertaken some action in response to the Emanuel-Bauer memo. Of those, 24 agencies responded with evidence of updated FOIA training materials and guidance, but only 13 showed evidence that they had fulfilled both steps.

"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," said Eric Newton, a Knight Foundation senior adviser to the president, in a press release. The foundation funded the report. 

Some agencies, including the Postal Service, responded to the archive's FOIA requests with a statement that no responsive records could be located. "Perhaps the Postal Service lost that memo in the mail," said Nate Jones, the National Security Archives FOIA coordinator. In all, 41 agencies failed to demonstrate proof they've complied with the Emanuel-Bauer memo, or hadn't responded to the National Security Archive's FOIA request after more than 100 days (the law allows agencies 20 days to respond, unless they invoke an extension, in which case it's 30.) Two of those agencies responded to the archive's request with a statement that they were withholding records under an exception to the FOIA law.

Click to see a National Security Archives chart on how all 90 agencies responded to its FOIA request. The organization prepared the report as part of Sunshine Week, the annual transparency awareness push spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors. This year's government openness fest runs March 13-19.

For more:
- download the report (.pdf)
- go to the Sunshine Week website
- take a look at the documents FOIA'ed by FierceGovernmentIT

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