Chasing Transparency; Government Transparency Down in '09

When President Obama took office, he famously aspired to be the leader in administrative transparency, but now he finds himself struggling to enforce it within his own government.

In fiscal year 2009, 17 major governmental agencies refused to release information, claiming legal exemptions, 466,872 times, an increase of nearly 50 percent from the previous year, according to a review of requests conducted by The Associated Press. In 2008, the government refused 312,683 requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, AP reported.

The AP examined the 2008 and 2009 budget year FOIA reports from the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs; the Environmental Protection Agency; and the Federal Reserve Board.

One example includes the Federal Aviation Administration's initial denial in releasing information regarding incidents on plane-bird collisions, which the FAA eventually relented on. There was also the infamous Air Force One photo op over New York City, which stirred memories of September 11th, 2001 among the unsuspecting public. The FAA denied information requests on the incident, as well, citing exemptions to FOIA.

The frequency with which departments have used exemptions to deny information requests runs contrary to the example the President asked its departments to set at the outset. The default should be in favor of sharing information, says a White House memo released today. It reads in part, "[O]n his first full day in office, the President directed you to administer the Freedom of Information Act... with a 'presumption in favor of disclosure' and to respond to FOIA requests 'promptly and in a spirit of cooperation.'"

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Counsel to the President Bob Bauer issued the memo to federal agency and department heads. "[W]e write to request that your agency take several specific steps to improve implementation of the President's Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act.," the two wrote.

"We appreciate your efforts to implement the Memorandum on FOIA, and we are confident that the Chief FOIA Officer Reports you filed will show progress. But more work remains to be done, and such work requires persistent effort."

The review comes during the annual Sunshine Week in which the media and others interested in open government take part in a dialogue on the topic.

On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration has "delivered" on its promise to make government more transparent, but a new study released the same day concluded the administration is "falling short" of its promise.

A "disturbing trend" under the Bush administration, which saw a reduction in government disclosures under FOIA, has been "completely reversed," Holder said.

But only "a minority" of federal agencies have responded to calls for transparency with "concrete changes," according to the new report by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

"Five agencies actually raised red flags by releasing less and withholding more than they did last year," reads the report, citing the Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, NASA and the National Reconnaissance Office.

"One year is too early to render a final judgment on how far President Obama can move the government toward openness, but this audit finds that much more pressure and leadership will be necessary, both inside and outside the government," National Security Archives General Counsel Meredith Fuchs said in a statement.

Fox News' Mike Levine contributed to this report.