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"More than any of its recent predecessors, this administration
has a penchant for secrecy."
-- David E. Rosenbaum, The New York Times Week
in Review, 3 February 2002
"There is a veil of secrecy that is descending around
the administration which I think is unseemly."
-- Rep. Dan Burton (R-In.) to ABC News, 22 February 2002
"Why does the White House sometimes seem so determined
to close the door on the people's right to know what their
government is doing?"
-- Mark Tapscott, Heritage Foundation, The Washington
Post, 20 November 2002
Commentators ranging from senior Republican members
of Congress to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
have described a dramatic new trend towards increased government
secrecy - predating the terrible events of September 11th, but
escalating since then as the United States moved to a war footing.
Criticisms of the new secrecy have cited, among other exhibits,
the October 12, 2001 Freedom
of Information Act policy guidance issued by Attorney General
John Ashcroft. For example, an editorial in the San
Francisco Chronicle asserted that the guidance effectively
repealed the FOIA ("The Day Ashcroft Censored Freedom of
Information," January 6, 2002); and a recent Associated Press
article referred to the guidance as meaning that "Ashcroft
ended the practice of cooperating with Freedom of Information
Act requests ...." ("The post-Sept. 11 John Ashcroft,"
February 24, 2003). In contrast, senior career officials have
characterized the Ashcroft guidance as "more continuity than
change"; and line FOIA officers who process the hundreds
of FOIA requests filed by the National Security Archive ("the
Archive") each year have in routine conversation downplayed
the impact of the guidance.
To test these contrasting views, the National Security Archive
last year initiated a "Freedom of Information Act Audit"
- borrowing the methodology developed by state and local journalism
groups to file simultaneous FOIA requests at multiple agencies
and offices, and compile the results in order to identify the
best and worst practices. The Archive began with the 25 agencies
included in two recent General Accounting Office studies of implementation
of the 1996 Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments [2001
Report - 2002 Report],
a group that accounts for 97% of all FOIA processing in the federal
government. The Archive added 10 other agencies with significant
FOIA efforts, for a total of 35 agencies in the audit. For the
substantive focus of the audit, the Archive began with the Ashcroft
memorandum, but soon expanded to include the March
19, 2002 White House memorandum issued by Chief of Staff Andrew
Card, as well as the long-standing issue of agency backlogs.
This report summarizes the findings of the First Phase of the
National Security Archive FOIA Audit, focusing on the Attorney
General's guidance from October 2001. This report also includes
preliminary findings from Phase Two of the Audit, regarding the
White House memorandum from March 2002; but this portion of the
Audit is not yet complete. Phase Three of the Audit is examining
the backlog problem, as well as the inadequacy of agency reporting
in the annual FOIA reports concerning delays in processing, through
a set of FOIA requests for the "10 Oldest" pending requests
at each of the 35 agencies. For a complete discussion of the methodology,
the texts and dates of the FOIA requests, and the findings, see
below. The Archive gratefully acknowledges the support of the
John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in making this FOIA Audit