AP Analysis Finds U.S. Tightening Grip On Information

It's Sunshine Week, a national effort to highlight government transparency. Steve Inskeep speaks with Associated Press reporter Jack Gillum about a new analysis of the Obama administration's response to Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests. The AP found that in many cases, government agencies are tightening their hold on what information the public gets to see.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When President Obama took office, he pledged to usher in a new era of open government. Today, the administration is often criticized for a mixed record on transparency, as it's called. The president changed some rules regarding the release of government records. The president has also been criticized for limiting information about drone strikes or even the principles under which the U.S. would be willing to kill U.S. citizens.

During this week, which is known as Sunshine Week, a time when reporters and advocates highlight transparency issues, the Associated Press took stock of the administration's efforts in 2012. One of those reporters is Jack Gillum.

JACK GILLUM: I think what you see in these, looking at the last four years is certain areas of the law - and that is under the Freedom of Information Act; we all like to call it FOIA, sort of the shorthand for it - there are nine exemptions under the law that Congress said, hey, look, the executive branch can withhold either part or all of these records for. One of those is national security.

And as we found in doing this story this week, some of these agencies, particularly where their purview is national security - whether it's the Pentagon or the CIA - had invoked it more often than they had done for the previous year.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk through some of the numbers. How can you measure how transparent an administration is?

GILLUM: Well, we look at it a few different ways and I think the main way is to see how responsive the government is under the FOIA. And one of the ways we look at is what kind of records are being released? And that is whether they black them out. You know, the fancy word we say, redact, but whether they take basically a black marker and highlight all of the page or some paragraphs that they think should be exempt.

How quickly does it get back to you? Sometimes it can take upward of a couple of years. Sometimes it can take - like when we did vetting during the presidential election - a couple of days. Those are sort of this mix that we look together and say, in the first four years of this promise of transparency and a new pledge of doing it, what kind of records can we get and how quickly can we get them?

INSKEEP: How they doing?

GILLUM: Well, I think it's a mixed bag in some areas. I think, you know, the administration certainly has processed more records this year than they had in the last three. They had processed more than 600,000. In some areas they had withheld more records. Other agencies have tried to do a pretty remarkable job and increase how efficient they were, but it depends where you're looking.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned a lot of these cases have to do with national security. I think we all understand the dilemma here. You don't want actual secrets, necessary secrets, to get out into the public domain or to enemies and yet there are demands for information. And you write of a particular case that got before a federal court and the strangely conflicted ruling of the judge in that case. What was that case about?

GILLUM: Well, this is an example of how you have to sort of thread this very delicate needle, and this is a case in which the New York Times and the ACLU had essentially sought records over the administration's legal justification of killing terrorism suspects overseas, including Americans. And what this judge cited, and it was sort of a fascinating legal ruling, is this Alice in Wonderland approach, where she sort of had to figure out what could be revealed but was unable to challenge the government's secrecy claims.

And in fact, part of her ruling was only made available to the government's lawyers. And she called it a veritable catch-22 in the process.

INSKEEP: She's got a quote in there where she says, "On the face of it this is a violation of the Constitution and yet I can't do anything about it."

GILLUM: Right. And I think this comes down to when judges in this case are loath to challenge the administration or, really, the executive branch on matters of national security.

INSKEEP: Jack Gillum is a reporter for the Associated Press and co-author of an analysis of Obama administration's efforts at transparency in 2012. Thanks very much.

GILLUM: Yeah. Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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