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Unredacted FOIA responses down, exemption use up, shows DOJ OIP reports

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An annual Justice Department Office of Information Policy report on agency Freedom of Information Act request processing shows mixed results when it comes to records releases.

The report (.pdf), released this week, says the number of governmentwide backlogged requests dropped by 11,700 during the last fiscal year compared to the year before – but is still more than the 69,526 backlogged requests reported during fiscal 2010.

The total number of FOIA requests sent to the federal government has increased each year since fiscal 2009; last year, requesters sent 651,254 of them.

On its face, a decrease in raw backlog numbers, especially when considering an increase in requests, could be good news, but some watchdogs say federal agencies are taking shortcuts to closing out requests. "Once you start digging into the numbers, you'll find that they did a lot of playing with the numbers or closing out old requests in a way that was unfair," said Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpenTheGovernment.org. Some agencies close out FOIA cases by sending out confirmation requests and closing them if they don't receive a response within 30 days, Bennet said.

Data in the report also show a decrease over the past 2 years in the percentage of completely unredacted records sent back by agencies in response to all FOIA requests, and an increase in the number of redacted records, what's referred to as "partial grants."

Redactions in partial grants can range from minor – a redacted email or phone number of no consequence to the meaning of the record itself – to major, in which key parts of a documented are blocked from release, making the release close to meaningless. The partial grant numbers don't capture that range – one that in any case resists easy measure.

Office of Information Policy data also shows that governmentwide reliance on heavily-used FOIA exemptions is growing larger. Use of Exemption 5, which nominally protects deliberative, pre-decisional records but is often used by agencies in excess of those parameters, went up to 11.93 percent of evoked exemptions in fiscal 2012, up from 8.91 in fiscal 2011 and 10.76 percent in fiscal 2010.

The report notes a decrease in governmentwide full-time FOIA staff of 7.5 percent in fiscal 2012 relative to the year before, down to 4,065 personnel. It attributes the drop mostly to a Defense Department staff reduction of 316 full-time FOIA staff, down to 719.

For more:
- download the DOJ OIP fiscal 2012 report (.pdf)
- go to the DOJ OIP annual report webpage

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