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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Freedom of Information

Paul Farhi reports at The Washington Post:
When Dina Cappiello, until recently the national environment writer for the Associated Press, asked the Interior Department for federal data about bird deaths on wind-energy farms in 2013, she says, she met a stone wall. The industry-supplied information, the agency told her, was “protected” and couldn’t be released because it would harm a private interest.
Cappiello suspected a political motive for the department’s silence: The Obama administration supports the development of wind power, and release of the data might undercut public support if it showed that wind farms kill large numbers of protected species, such as eagles and falcons.
She filed a FOIA request for the records. No dice. “I still haven’t gotten an answer,” she said recently.
The reaction was even more aggressive when Cappiello began asking the Agriculture Department for interviews for a story about the environmental degradation caused by converting non-crop land into cornfields for ethanol production, another administration initiative.
The agency went on the offense, telling officials in the field not to talk to her and her co-writer. A public affairs official further instructed his colleagues not to provide the reporters with the names of farmers for interviews, as they had routinely done for other stories.
“We just want to have a consistent message on the topic,” the official, Jason Johnson, wrote in an e-mail. Cappiello filed another FOIA request for the directive — and noted the e-mail’s existence in her story about the land-conversion policy.
“I think the thread here is that all of these stories are questioning the goals and policies of the administration,” she said. “All of these have the potential to set off controversy.” While government press officials often talk about having “a consistent message,” Cappiello said, “they never seem to insist on having ‘a truthful message.’ I wonder why.””
The Center for Effective Government reports:
This is the second year we have conducted a very detailed comparative analysis of the performance of the 15 federal agencies that consistently receive the most FOIA requests. Combined, these 15 agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests for each of last two years. We examined their performance in three key areas:
  • The establishment of clear agency rules guiding the release of information and communication with those requesting information;
  • The quality and “user-friendliness” of an agency’s FOIA website; and
  • The timely, complete processing of requests for information.
The number of requests each agency receives, the complexity of the requests, and the number of staff assigned within an agency to process them varies widely and can impact performance....

  •  A majority of agencies – eight – improved their overall scores from last year. Performance at most agencies is moving in the right direction.
  • More agencies received the highest grades possible (A) in each performance area than last year, with significant enhancements in websites, but timely request processing remains a challenge.
  • The Department of Agriculture (USDA) was the top performer, with a B grade, and the Social Security Administration came in second with a B-.
  • Despite these improvements, federal agencies are still struggling to effectively and consistently implement public disclosure rules.
  • Ten of the 15 agencies did not earn satisfactory overall grades, scoring less than 70 out of a possible 100 points.
  • The scores of five agencies – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Department of Justice, and the Environmental Protection Agency – fell marginally.