GAO Reports Find Agencies Withheld More Information From The Public In Recent Years

Washington, D.C. (March 17, 2021)—Today, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, Senator Patrick Leahy, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Senator John Cornyn, and Senator Chuck Grassley issued the following statement in recognition of Sunshine Week—held each year to highlight the importance of government transparency—after the release of two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that found that agencies increasingly withheld information under FOIA during the period between 2012 and 2019: 

“The Freedom of Information Act is an important tool for the public to get information about the actions of government.  Two recent GAO reports highlight that agencies more than doubled their use of statutory exemptions to withhold information from the public since 2012.  GAO also found that many agencies are not complying with the legal obligation to proactively release information to the public.  We must prevent agencies from abusing FOIA and ensure that the public has access to government information.”

GAO recently released a report on FOIA (b)(3) exemptions, which specifically authorize agencies to withhold information that is protected from disclosure under another law.

  • Agencies’ increased use of statutory exemptions outpaced the rate of increase in all FOIA requests from 2012 to 2019.  GAO found that agencies’ use of (b)(3) exemptions grew by 135%, more than doubling during this period.  While the type of information requested was not reported, (b)(3) exemptions increased by 91% during the first year of the Trump Administration.  Full denials of FOIA requests fell by 10% between 2012 and 2019, with a peak in 2016.  During this period, partial denials increased by 76%.

Today, GAO reported on agency compliance with requirements to proactively disclose certain information.                       

  • Twenty-five agencies reported zero proactive disclosures in 2018 and 2019.  DOJ’s Office of Information Policy, which is responsible for facilitating agency’s compliance with FOIA, did not follow up or investigate why these agencies reported zero proactive disclosures. 
  • The Department of Housing the Urban Development, Veterans Health Administration, and Federal Aviation Administration did not comply with statutory reporting requirements to accurately report proactive disclosures. 
  • GAO made eight recommendations including one for DOJ to follow up with agencies that report no proactive disclosures and encourage agencies to comply with the law.