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Analysis Reveals Record Number Of FOIA Requests Filed Last Year

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Americans want to know more than ever about their government, but for one reason or another, information is getting harder to get. That's the bottom line of a new analysis by the Associated Press, of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA for short. The government released new numbers this week and AP investigative editor Ted Bridis has been poring through them. He found that last year a record number of FOIA requests were made - more than 700,000. He also found the rate of censorship and outright rejection of these requests also set a record. And Ted Bridis joins us now.

Ted, thanks for being here.

TED BRIDIS: Happy to be here.

GONYEA: So, there's an interesting number from this analysis of requests from 2014. When the administration is challenged on a decision that they have made to censor something, in nearly 1 in 3 cases you've found out that they can't support that decision, and ultimately it's reversed to some degree. What does that tell us?

BRIDIS: Really disappointing, in that number especially. This is an administration now that does not like negative headlines, does not like bad press. And so, what we are seeing is a reflection of frontline government employees blacking out, censoring documents, in ways that they think will prevent negative press on the activities of government. And in the few times when those of us who are persistent and aggressive challenge that, their initial efforts do not hold up under the law.

GONYEA: So if the rejection rate is higher, is it simply a staffing question and the way people are handling these, or are there truly tougher standards?

BRIDIS: I think it's a staffing and a rush problem. The numbers are way up and at the same time, the administration that has committed to transparency and committed to this process has cut the number of employees by almost 10 percent.

GONYEA: I'm wondering if requests that were once routine now take longer?

BRIDIS: The requests are taking longer by and large. As an investigative journalist, we ask for particularly sensitive and particularly difficult types of records, and so we never know until we look at the annual audits - which have just come out this week - whether our experience is an anomaly, but clearly it's not. It's taking longer for everyone.

GONYEA: Can you cite any examples of a request that took longer or was rejected when you thought it shouldn't have been?

BRIDIS: Almost immediately after Malaysian Airlines 370 went down, we asked the Pentagon's spy satellite agency about the request for assistance that they might have received either internationally or from within the U.S. government. And a year later, we are still waiting for anything. Zero pages have been produced.

GONYEA: This is an administration, the Obama administration, that likes to talk about how transparent it is. How do they react to this analysis you've done?

BRIDIS: The White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest points to the releases that are made under the law that are not censored or withheld. And yesterday he further pointed to about 125,000 sets of data that the White House has sort of proactively published on the data.gov website before anyone had to ask for them. So, although that's worthy of applause, it doesn't really speak to some of the problems with the application of the Freedom of Information law that we were writing about.

GONYEA: That's Ted Bridis. He's an investigative editor with the Associated Press.

Ted, thanks for joining us.

BRIDIS: Sure, happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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