Thursday, March 15, 2018

Trump administration sets new record for censoring or withholding government files, AP finds

An Associated Press data analysis shows that over the past eight months under President Trump, "the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade," Ted Bridis reports for AP. "People who asked for records under the Freedom of Information Act received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of 823,222 requests, a record over the past decade."

In 63,749 of the requests, the government said it would be illegal to release the requested information, which is double the number of such claims from the previous year. And the government said it couldn't find any records related to a request 180,924 times, an increase of 18 percent over the year before. The AP couldn't determine whether journalists were asking for records that didn't exist in those cases, or whether federal employees weren't looking hard enough.

The federal government turned over everything requested about 20 percent of the time, the analysis found. And in two-thirds of the cases where it turned over anything at all, the documents were censored. Adam A. Marshall, the Knight Foundation-funded litigation attorney at the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Bridis "Federal agencies are failing to take advantage of modern technology to store, locate and produce records in response to FOIA requests, and the public is losing out as a result."

When challenged, more than one-third of the time the government backed down and said it had improperly tried to withhold pages. But people filed only 14,713 appeals, or in 4.3 percent of cases in which the government said it had found records but wouldn't hand them over. Not fulfilling FOIA requests has been expensive for the government: it spent a record $40.6 million in legal fees last year defending decisions to withhold files. That number includes paying the winner's attorney's fees sometimes, if the government loses its case. The Trump administration said last week that it had received a record number of FOIA requests last year and that many agencies had reduced their backlogs of overdue requests.

This story is one in a series produced by the AP as part of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and freedom of the news media in the service of democracy.

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