Requests for government information hit all-time high

The total number of Freedom of Information Act requests made to federal departments and agencies broke records in fiscal 2003 and cost the government almost $325 million, according to a new report from the Justice Department.

More than 3.2 million FOIA requests were received by federal departments and agencies in 2003, surpassing the 3-million mark for the first time, an annual report by the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy reveals. The number of requests jumped nearly 36 percent from the previous year, which marked the greatest single-year increase ever recorded.

"Generally, it's a healthy sign when people want access to government information. I'd be worried if FOIA activity was dropping," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "On the other hand, for many kinds of information, it should not be necessary for members of the public to invoke the formal process of the FOIA. The fact that it is necessary to file a request suggests that agency practices need to be updated and refined."

The annual report is compiled based on FOIA reports from 15 federal departments and 73 agencies. The federal government spent about $320 million on FOIA-related activities in 2003, which was a 7.7 percent increase over the preceding year. About $10 million was spent on litigating requests.

The report found that more than half of the record increase was due to an unusually large number of requests received by the Social Security Administration, which received about 705,000 requests, more than double those of the previous year. The majority of the increase occurred at Social Security field locations, where FOIA activities have been enhanced by a recently instituted automated system, the report stated.

Other large increases were within the departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs.

Among Cabinet-level agencies, Veterans Affairs received the largest number of requests at about 1.8 million. Homeland Security received about 160,000 FOIA requests, which was second highest. The report noted, however, that the DHS reorganization affected 22 agencies and took effect during the middle of the fiscal year, meaning FOIA reports of those agencies cannot be readily compared with previous annual reports.

Overall, the total number left pending at the end of 2003 was 155,343, which is about 4.5 percnet higher than the previous year. The report added, however, that agencies managed to process a greater number of requests during 2003 while devoting fewer employee work-hours to FOIA administration, mainly because of increased use of automation.

"Access to information is becoming a kind of battleground in which questions of security, policy and government accountability are being hashed out," Aftergood said. "There are some victories, and some information does get disclosed, but there are also lots of defeats."

Aftergood said he worries that government agencies are moving toward placing more restrictions on information.

For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Wednesday that information about the physical security of nuclear facilities will no longer be publicly available or updated on the agency's Web site, and will be exempt from FOIA.

"The commission has a responsibility for public health and safety, and that responsibility is evaluated in considering which information should be made public," said NRC Chairman Nils Diaz. "We deliberated for many months on finding the balance between the NRC's commitment to openness and the concern that sensitive information might be misused by those who wish us harm."

The Federal Communications Commission also ruled Wednesday that outage reports from wireless, wireline, cable and satellite telecommunications providers will be protected from public disclosure. It said the rule was necessary to protect information about significant disruptions "during this time of increasing concern about homeland security and national defense."

"Anyone can understand that there might be reasons to withhold information to protect security," Aftergood said. "The problem is that agencies, including DHS, have gone overboard and are invoking security in implausible ways. And what that does is foster public cynicism and encourage skepticism, even about the legitimate applications of security."

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