Record Number of FOIA Lawsuits Filed Against Obama

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Mark Tapscott Executive Editor, Chief of Investigative Group
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Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) complaints filed in federal court have skyrocketed under President Barack Obama despite his promise to have “the most transparent administration ever,” according to a comprehensive analysis by a Syracuse University research unit.

A total of 498 FOIA lawsuits were filed in 2015, the highest number since 2001, the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse study made public Wednesday. The 421 suits filed in 2014 previously held the highest annual total.

The most recent two-year total represents a 54 percent increase over the total of 595 FOIA lawsuits filed in 2009 and 2010. See the accompanying chart below.

The FOIA requires federal departments and agencies to make available requests of all official documents, not covered by a handful of exemptions such as for law enforcement, privacy and protection of commercial secrets. When requested documents aren’t made available as required by law, requestors often go to federal court seeking a judicial order to compel production.

“The 919 FOIA cases filed in the period fiscal year 2014 – 2015 also far outnumber those filed during the last two years of the previous Bush administration. There were only 562 such matters filed during fiscal year 2007 – 2008, yielding a 64 percent increase for the most recent period,” TRAC said announcing the results of its analysis.

The Syracuse University research unit was founded by former New York Times investigative reporter David Burnham in 1989.

A total of 2,609 FOIA lawsuits were filed during Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2015, compared to 2,091 filed during the Bush administration from 2002 through 2008. The highest annual total of the Bush years was 387 in 2005.

“This is the most transparent administration in history,” Obama said in 2013 during a Google Plus Fireside Chat. “I can document that this is the case. Every visitor that comes into the White House is now part of the public record. Every law we pass and every rule we implement we put online for everyone to see.”

Obama did begin posting information to the Internet about White House visitors but only after a lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit government watchdog Judicial Watch.

Critics have frequently reminded Obama of his transparency claim, a fact TRAC noted, “the administration’s record has been a contentious matter ever since President Obama’s first days in office, when both he and Attorney General Eric Holder made sweeping claims about the ambitious FOIA policies they would follow in the years ahead.”

“In a short memorandum to the heads of all Executive Branch departments and agencies, the president said the Freedom of Information Act ‘should be administered with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails.'”

TRAC also cautioned, however, that an increase in the number of FOIA lawsuits being filed isn’t necessarily an indicator of less government transparency during a particular presidential administration.

“Because of possible changes in public attitudes about the public’s right to obtain government records, its willingness to challenge government’s failure to provide transparency, as well as changes in the Freedom of Information law and case law, the increase in federal FOIA court filings does not necessarily mean that the current administration is more or less secretive than those of the past,” TRAC said.

“But the rising counts well may indicate that this administration has not lived up to the ambitious open government promises made when President Obama first came to the White House,” TRAC said.

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