Although Attorney General Eric Holder is pushing government agencies to expedite Freedom of Information Act requests, the Department of Justice processed fewer requests in fiscal 2009 than it did in 2008.
The 2009 figures were disclosed in an annual report to Congress on Justice Department FOIA requests. Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli also sent two letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden last week to accompany the report.
According to the report, the department processed about 60,200 requests in fiscal 2009, a slight decrease from the nearly 61,300 requests processed in fiscal 2008. More than 6,200 requests were pending at the beginning of fiscal 2009. By the end of the fiscal year, that number had jumped to more than 7,400 — an 18 percent jump.
While the number of requests processed in 2009 was slightly lower than in the previous year, it was still the second highest number processed since 2002, according to a report (PDF) issued by the DOJ’s Office of Information Policy chief Melanie Pustay last month.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said it takes longer to process requests since a new Obama administration policy on FOIA requests was implemented last year. Both President Barack Obama and Holder both issued memoranda in 2009 aimed at making the executive branch more transparent. The new policy instructs government lawyers to lean towards disclosure when reviewing requests.
The Holder memorandum rescinded then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Oct. 12, 2001 memo that told government lawyers the DOJ would defend any FOIA requests rejections so long as the decision had a sound legal basis.
Pustay said in testimony last month that federal agencies are continuing their efforts to reduce the FOIA request backlog. According to Pustay, the government’s overall backlog has been reduced by 50 percent since the new policy went into effect.
Speaking to government Freedom of Information Act officials last month, Holder said that “this past year has brought a shift in the way our entire federal government operates.”
While there is still a lot to be done, Holder said, the past year has “signaled the emergence of a government that’s striving to work more openly and more effectively for the people it serves.”
An independent audit by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University released last month named DOJ one of the few federal agencies to receive high marks for processing FOIA requests.
Andrew Ramonas contributed to this report.