In category after category — except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees — the government's efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.
In a year of intense public interest over the National Security Agency's surveillance programs, the government cited national security to withhold information a record 8,496 times — a 57 percent increase over a year earlier and more than double Obama's first year, when it cited that reason 3,658 times. The Defense Department, including the NSA, and the CIA accounted for nearly all those. The Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency cited national security six times, the Environmental Protection Agency did twice and the National Park Service once.
And five years after Obama directed agencies to less frequently invoke a "deliberative process" exception to withhold materials describing decision-making behind the scenes, the government did it anyway, a record 81,752 times.
"I'm concerned the growing trend toward relying upon FOIA exemptions to withhold large swaths of government information is hindering the public's right to know," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It becomes too much of a temptation. If you screw up in government, just mark it top secret."
Citizens, journalists, businesses and others last year made a record 704,394 requests for information, an 8 percent increase over the previous year. The government responded to 678,391 requests, an increase of 2 percent over the previous year. The AP analysis showed that the government more than ever censored materials it turned over or fully denied access to them, in 244,675 cases or 36 percent of all requests. On 196,034 other occasions, the government said it couldn't find records, a person refused to pay for copies or the government determined the request to be unreasonable or improper.
Sometimes, the government censored only a few words or an employee's phone number, but other times it completely marked out nearly every paragraph on pages.
The White House said the government's figures demonstrate "that agencies are responding to the president's call for greater transparency." White House spokesman Eric Schultz noted that the government responded to more requests than previously and said it released more information. "Over the past five years, federal agencies have worked aggressively to improve their responsiveness to FOIA requests, applying a presumption of openness and making it a priority to respond quickly," Schultz said.
Sunday was the start of Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information.
The chief of the Justice Department's Office of Information Policy, which oversees the open records law, told the Senate last week that some of the 99 agencies in the past five years have released documents in full or in part in more than 90 percent of cases. She noted the record number of requests for government records, which exceeded 700,000 for the first time last year, and said decisions are harder than ever.
"The requests are more complex than they were before," director Melanie Pustay told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The government's responsiveness under the FOIA is widely viewed as a barometer of its transparency. Under the law, citizens and foreigners can compel the government to turn over copies of federal records for zero or little cost. Anyone who seeks information through the law is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making in certain areas. It cited such exceptions a record 546,574 times last year.
"The public is frustrated and unhappy with the pace of responses and the amount of information provided," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at the same congressional hearing. "There's a common reaction for anybody who has any experience with it that it doesn't function well."
John Cook, the incoming new editor at the Intercept, the online magazine founded by investor Pierre Omidyar, said his experience under the open records law was "abysmal" but not especially worse last year than previously. "It's a bureaucracy," Cook said. "As often as it's about trying to keep data from falling into the hands of reporters, it's the contractor looking for ways to reduce the caseload. It's just bureaucrats trying to get home earlier and have less to do."
The AP could not determine whether the administration was abusing the national security exception or whether the public asked for more documents about sensitive subjects. The NSA said its 138 percent surge in records requests were from people asking whether it had collected their phone or email records, which it generally refuses to confirm or deny. To do otherwise, the NSA said, would pose an "an unacceptable risk" because terrorists could check to see whether the U.S. had detected their activities. It censored records or fully denied access to them in 4,246 out of 4,328 requests, or 98 percent of the time.
Journalists and others who need information quickly to report breaking news fared worse than ever last year. Blocking news organizations from urgently obtaining records about a government scandal or crisis — such as the NSA's phone-records collection, Boston bombings, trouble with its health care website, the deadly shootings at the Washington Navy Yard or the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi — can delay uncovering significant developments until after decisions are made and the public's interest has waned.