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U.S. agencies' FOIA backlogs remain.

Two years after President George W. Bush signed an executive order meant to improve Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) compliance and reduce backlogs of pending requests, a new audit reveals that progress has been slow.

The Knight Open Government Survey audit, released by the National Security Archive, an independent non-government research institute located at The George Washington University, found that 200,000 requests are still pending, and some agencies' backlogs actually have increased since Bush signed the order in December 2005.

Overall, FOIA backlogs decreased by only 2 percent across all government agencies by the end of 2007, according to the audit, and 30 percent of agencies that had backlogs at the time of the executive order reported an increase in pending requests between 2005 and 2007.

For example, according to the audit, pending FOIA requests increased at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from 82,544 in fiscal year 2005 to 83,661 in 2007. DHS "set an overarching goal of eliminating FOIA backlog" by the end of last year, but it did not augment this plan with "manageable interim targets," according to the report. DHS reduced its backlog by only 25 percent during the audited time period.

The FBI also failed to reduce its backlog. It "set several goals to process older requests ... but failed to meet all of them and pushed the completion dates back a year on two occasions," according to the audit.

A few agencies, including the Department of Defense and the CIA, made "concerted efforts to process their older cases," the audit found. It said the CIA decreased its oldest cases by 74 percent last year.

Part of the problem, FOIA experts said, is that Bush's executive order lacks a system of oversight to force compliance, giving agencies little incentive to improve.

"The order was only a small step for open government," Meredith Fuchs, general counsel of the National Security Archive, said in a news release. "There are certainly mixed messages when the president asks for results under the Freedom of Information Act, and at the same time refuses to support funding of technology or personnel, opposes improvements to the law, and exempts parts of the Executive Office of the President from the law."

The National Security Archive is a plaintiff in a FOIA lawsuit against the White House Office of Administration over the disappearance of millions of e-mails to and from administration officials.

The full Knight Open Government Survey is available at dit.pdf.
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Title Annotation:UP FRONT; Freedom of Information Act
Author:Swartz, Nikki
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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