Agencies Cite Privacy More Often When Denying FOIA Requests

Agencies are twice as likely to claim personal privacy in 2002 than in 1998 to justify denials of Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests. In 1998, just under 40 percent of FOIA denials were for personal privacy; in 2002, roughly 80 percent of denials were for privacy. Surprisingly, agencies use national security to explain refusals less often than they did several years ago. That’s the conclusion of an analysis by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that compared agencies’ annual reports on compliance with the federal open records law for 1998 and 2002. The analysis makes clear that federal agencies relied more heavily in 2002 on two privacy-related exemptions than they did previously. The number of information inquiries processed under FOIA jumped from 870,340 in 1998 to 2,335,210 requests in 2002. The bulk of that increase stems from a Department of Veterans Affairs decision in 1999 to begin considering veterans’ requests for their own medical files as FOIA requests. Whether the increased reliance on privacy stems from an increase in inquiries that involve information about individuals and/or recordkeeping changes, or whether the agencies were changing their response to FOIA requests in response to administrative nudging to withhold information remains unclear. In October 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft promised Department of Justice support for any agency that found a “sound legal basis” for denying a FOIA request. The analysis appears in summer issue of The News Media And The Law, The Reporters Committee’s quarterly magazine.
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