In theory, the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is supposed to give the public timely access to information about government. In practice? Not so much, it would appear.

A recent Associated Press report suggests the public is facing greater obstacles to accessing information through FOIA, a critical instrument to ensure government accountability.  While requests are at an all-time high - more than 700,000 in fiscal 2014 alone - the current administration is denying requests, censoring responses and generally obfuscating at unprecedented levels, according to the AP report.  

 AP described government agencies charging exorbitant fees, taking extremely long times to respond and denying speedy processing, making improper initial decisions to withhold or censor records--decisions that are frequently reversed when legally challenged— and providing responses that can be best described as incomplete or unresponsive. Meanwhile the government has cut 10 percent of the full-time employees responding to requests and spent $28 million on lawyers' fees to keep records secret.

The report gels with Human Rights Watch’s recent experiences. For example, the Air Force told us that it would cost $168,000 to respond to a FOIA request while the Army estimated $1,300 for the same information. We are appealing to the Department of Homeland Security over an FOIA request made nearly three years ago.  We have received data that was heavily redacted, only to have it un-redacted after a legal appeal. These sorts of delays can significantly undermine the potential impact of the data in our work, as the information can become so outdated as to be useless.

 In one particularly jarring episode, Immigration and Customs Enforcement told us it doesn’t keep data on the immigration status of those it deports, even though the government is legally obligated to keep this information which it has willingly provided us in the past. Frequently, we are told documents do not exist and have been referred to non-existent webpages in order to find information that “may pertain to our request”. We have been toldby Immigration and Customs Enforcement FOIA operations that a response to our request would cause statistical reporting by the agency to “virtually grind to a halt”. And on and on.

For Human Rights Watch, FOIA provides an essential tool to help document potential rights abuses by US agencies, as we did in our reports on the use of far and frequent detention transfers within the immigration system and police mishandling of sexual assault cases in Washington DC. In passing FOIA, the US recognized that transparency, accountability  and democratic governance are intrinsically linked.  Yet if the US is to live up to these values, the Obama administration must urgently correct course, by providing the resources and training necessary to implement FOIA, and by instructing its agencies to provide accurate, reasonable, and complete responses to those who use it.