FOIA Exemptions at Federal Agencies Have More Than Doubled Since 2012

Based on the principles of openness and accountability in government, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to provide the public access to government records and information. The act also specifies exemptions, e.g., information can be withheld for national security or personal privacy concerns.

Agencies can also cite other federal laws to exempt certain information from release. Use of these exemptions more than doubled from FY2012 to FY2019, even as the number of FOIA requests processed only increased by about 32%. A federal law that makes U.S. visa issuance records confidential was the most commonly cited law.

In fiscal years 2010 through 2019, federal agencies claimed a total of 256 statutes as the basis for withholding requested information using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemptions known as (b)(3) exemptions. During this time, 91 agencies reported withholding information using at least one of the 256 statutes a total of more than 525,000 times. The most-commonly used statute related to withholding records pertaining to the issuance or refusal of visas to enter the United States (8 U.S.C. § 1202(f)).

Agencies’ use of (b)(3) exemptions more than doubled from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2019 while the number of FOIA requests processed increased 32 percent. At the same time, full denials of requests based on a statutory exemption increased by 10 percent and partial denials, when an agency provided the requester with some, but not all, of the information requested, increased by 76 percent.

Several of the most-used (b)(3) exemption statutes showed large increases in use in fiscal years 2017 through 2019. For example, agencies increased their use of a section of the Bank Secrecy Act, which exempts information pertaining to reportable financial transactions (31 U.S.C. § 5319), by 235 percent—from 958 times in fiscal year 2016 to 3,209 times in fiscal year 2017. Further, agencies cited 19 additional statutes to withhold information in fiscal years 2017 through 2019 that had not been used in fiscal years 2010 through 2016. Four of these statutes had been enacted or amended since 2016.

Read the GAO report

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