FOIA data suggests FCC more secretive than CIA

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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Recent data suggests that the FCC, not the nation’s intelligence leading agency, has been in at least one particular case the most secretive agency of the Obama Administration.

During a House appropriations subcommittee hearing Monday, Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart noted that the FCC’s denial rate of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests was significantly higher than the rest of the federal government.

Citing publicly available information from FOIA.gov, the congressman noted that the 48 percent of FOIA requests the FCC rejected in 2010 was far higher than the CIA’s 0.7 percent rate. The National Security Agency denied 0.5 percent of requests. Homeland Security denied 0.2 percent. The rest of the government, the congressman noted, denied a collective 7.3 percent of FOIA requests during that same time.

“Why does the FCC all of a sudden have more secrets than the CIA when you’re dealing with FOIA requests?” asked Diaz-Balart during the hearing.

“Well, I am not familiar with those numbers and I haven’t heard them before, We’d be happy to look at them together with you, and try to understand the trends,” Genachowski said to the congressman. “Certainly, we recognize our obligations under FOIA and we have a team of professionals who handle FOIA requests and understand their obligations to comply and meet their obligations under law.”

Several of the requests, according to FOIA.gov’s data cited by the congressman, were denied under the justification that requests were “not reasonably described.”

“Under your watch, the FCC denied about 16.4 percent of FOIA requests based on records that were not, quote, ‘reasonably described,'” said Diaz-Balart to Genachowski.

“There seems to be a huge increase of denials of Freedom of Information, particularly under this category of ‘not reasonably described’ that I don’t think shows transparency, and it clearly does not reflect the President’s call, at least public call, for transparency,” said Diaz-Balart.

The Obama Administration, which came to Washington with the promise that it would become “the most open and transparent in history,” has been under fire for what the website Politico.com has called its “muddy transparency record.”

A study released in October 2011 by Syracuse University’s FOIA Project showed that “[federal] court challenges to withholding of information by the federal government” during the 2011 fiscal year were up 27 percent from the previous fiscal year.

The Legal Times blog reported in October that conservative and progressive government watchdog groups alike are disappointed in the Obama administration’s lack of transparency.

When asked by The Daily Caller why the FCC’s FOIA denial rate was so much higher than the rest of the government, an FCC spokesperson pushed back, stating, “The FCC is a government leader in transparency, including under the Freedom of Information Act.”

“Just last week, the Attorney General recognized the FCC for its ‘particularly exemplary’ use of the FCC.gov website to proactively release agency records and data, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa gave the FCC an ‘A’ for its FOIA record-keeping,” said the spokesperson in an email response to TheDC.

“In Fiscal Year 2011, the vast majority of FOIA requests that could be processed led to disclosure of records,” said the spokesperson. “Only about 3% (20 of 594) of the FOIA requests that were complete with fees paid could not be accommodated when the FCC had responsive records.“

The report by Issa’s office, however, does not evaluate how a federal agency responds to the request. The agency’s responsiveness seems to depend on the issue.

The liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a FOIA request with the FCC in 2011, “seeking documents that would shed light on the extent to which members of Congress and others acting on behalf of Rupert Murdoch or News Corp. have attempted to influence the FCC’s regulation of Mr. Murdoch’s media entities.”

CREW’s FOIA request — which sought records dating back as far as January 1, 2006 — came on the heels of the phone hacking scandal that rocked Murdoch’s media empire. CREW also sought a fee waiver for the search and reproduction costs for emails and other records.

The agency responded to CREW within one month’s time, having granted their request, released the requested documents and granted the fee waiver.

The congressman noted in the hearing, however, that it was the FCC’s conduct in the LightSquared saga which provoked his office to investigate further into how the agency handles FOIA requests. Diaz-Balart told TheDC Tuesday he has a “very good working relationship with the [FCC] chairman,” but that there was “the clear perception of improper behavior.”

The FCC’s spotty record of FOIA responsiveness has not gone unnoticed by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, whose inquiries into the LightSquared saga have been stonewalled months on end by the agency. Grassley has promised to hold up the two pending FCC nominees who would fill vacancies until he gets the information he requested from the agency.

Grassley told the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Hill on Monday that the FCC “gets an ‘F’ for its handling of requests from 99.6 percent of members of Congress.” The FCC does not report to any committee Grassley sits on, and has not responded to the senator’s inquiries.

“Maybe there’s a good reason for this,” Diaz-Balart told TheDC, “but it’s pretty dramatic.”

Diaz-Balart told TheDC that he expects to get an answer from the chairman.

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Josh Peterson