Former DOJ FOIA Official Questions Year-End Stats
By Elizabeth Murphy | March 12, 2012 4:21 pm

As Attorney General Eric Holder kicked-off a week celebrating government openness Monday afternoon, the Justice Department’s former chief of information and privacy is refuting the department’s statistics showing increased transparency.

Daniel Metcalfe

Daniel Metcalfe, founding member of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy, says the department’s recent Freedom of Information Act statistics appear to be “grossly wrong.”

In a story by John Hudson in the Atlanticwire, ex-DOJ official Dan Metcalfe says the numbers don’t add up in the department’s FOIA backlog reduction figures.

“For it to falsely claim that it ‘continues to lead by example’ has now become sad to the point of being pathetic, as is the notion that it is doing more today than ever in the past to promote FOIA disclosure,” Metcalfe told Atlanticwire.

Holder spoke at Department of Justice headquarters in Washington Monday, beginning “Sunshine Week,” which celebrates the department’s accomplishments in transparency. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued a directive intended to reverse a controversial policy of the George W. Bush administration that directed agencies essentially to deny FOIA requests whenever technically possible. The Obama directive asked agencies to make FOIA requests a priority, in addition to increasing government openness as a whole.

The Attorney General lauded the department’s “unprecedented efforts” it has undertaken to fulfill Obama’s goals, according to prepared statements. Holder also announced two changes to the department’s FOIA process: First, the department will post monthly FOIA logs documenting all requests made to senior leadership offices within DOJ. Second, the department will allow individuals to submit requests online, with online tracking capabilities.

“These are simple, common-sense improvements that will help streamline the ways in which ordinary Americans can participate in the work of their government,” Holder said in the remarks. “[T]hey will reinforce the culture of openness we’ve worked to instill across the federal government.”

In a recent news release, the department said it reduced its FOIA backlog by 26 pecent in fiscal year 2011. But Metcalfe, doing his own math with the department’s annual reports, found that there is only a 4.5 percent decrease in pending requests over the last two years. He found a backlog increase from 2009 to 2010, according to the Atlanticwire.

The Justice Department said the number difference is a result of different definitions of unanswered FOIA requests, according to the story. The department in its numbers refers to the FOIA backlong, while Metcalfe cites “pending requests.” The department said in the annual reports the backlog is generally smaller than the pending requests “because it doesn’t include FOIA requests that came in within the last 20 business days, which is the statutory deadline agencies have to respond to initial requests,” according to the report.

But the difference between the backlog and pending requests was “unusually large” in 2011, Metcalfe said. Metcalfe now serves as the executive director of American University School of Law’s Collaboration on Government Secrecy.

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