Homeland Security Tops FOIA Requests List

The Defense Department receives the second largest number of requests.

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One of Barack Obama's first promises as president was to make his the most transparent administration in history. This week, the obama administration became more transparent with the Justice Department's launch of FOIA.gov, a website that provides data about requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. The FOIA request is a common tool of journalists, scholars, and government watchdog groups, as well as average citizens who are curious about the inner workings of government agencies. The Freedom of Information Act states that the government must provide any requested information that is not protected by law. According to FOIA.gov, the government received 597,415 FOIA requests in FY 2010, with just three departments accounting for nearly half of those requests.

Data from FOIA.gov shows that the Department of Homeland Security received one-fifth of all FOIA requests in fiscal year 2010 (a period covering October 2009 through September 2010), with over 130,000 requests. Homeland Security records of FOIA requests show inquiries into past FOIA case logs, complaints filed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, and a classified evaluation of airport screening checkpoint effectiveness. The Defense Department is next, with 73,573 requests--just over half the total requests of Homeland Security. Many Defense FOIA requests pertained to information about the department's contractors, but other requests yielded correspondence and memos written by past top officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney. The Department of Health and Human Services received the third most FOIA requests in 2010, with nearly 64,000. An overwhelming majority of Health and Human Services requests in fiscal year 2010 (46,856) were to the department's Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The FOIA.gov launch comes during Sunshine Week, an initiative that promotes government transparency. The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors instituted the non-partisan, nonprofit effort in 2002, and the cause is now led by the American Society of News Editors, with significant support from organizations that support journalism, like the Knight Foundation and the Gridiron Club

Below are the 10 federal departments and agencies that received the most FOIA requests in fiscal year 2010.

Department/Agency Requests Received (FY10) 
Department of Homeland Security 130,098
Department of Defense 73,573
Department of Health and Human Services 63,839
Department of Justice 63,682
Social Security Administration 32,997
Department of State 30,206
Department of Veterans' Affairs 29,127
Department of Agriculture 20,368
Department of Labor 17,398
Department of the Treasury 16,911
The Freedom of Information Act states that within 20 working days of receiving a request, an agency must decide whether to comply and then respond to the requester. Requests not answered within that time frame are considered backlogged. The State Department is at the top of the list of agencies and departments with unanswered requests, with 20,519--more than two-thirds the number of requests it received in fiscal year 2010. However, requests can be backlogged for years or even for more than a decade; some FOIA requests from the 1990s are still pending.

Department/Agency Backlogged Requests as of End of FY10 
Department of State 20,519
Department of Homeland Security 11,383
Department of Health and Human Services 9,552
Department of Defense 7,657
National Archives and Records Administration 7,064
Department of Justice 5,160
Department of Agriculture 1,136
Department of Transportation 787
Central Intelligence Agency 715
Department of the Interior 679
Despite the administration's push for greater transparency, some argue that the handling of FOIA requests must be further improved. Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy and Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, two longtime advocates of government openness, re-introduced the Faster FOIA Act this week, a bill they first introduced in 2005. The measure would establish a panel to examine FOIA request backlogs and find ways reduce processing delays. In a statement released today, Cornyn said that such a panel "would be a great benefit to the American people, who deserve to be treated as valued customers when they seek answers from their government."