An FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request is an invaluable resource for most journalists to obtain information but reports from the AP, the Washington Times, and Federal News Network say obtaining the information is often too difficult.
Reporters have discovered their requests are either denied, delayed and in some cases for years, or the majority of the information received is censored, making it impossible to use for a story.
The FOIA request issues reported, in a March 2018 article written by AP journalist Ted Bridis, stated the federal government censored information 78 percent of 823,222 requests in 2017, in some cases, it took years to fulfill the requests, and there were 180,924 instances where the government could not find the information requested.
Adam A. Marshall, the Knight Foundation litigation attorney at the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, cited the issue with FOIA requests is due to the government not using the available technology to process the requests.
“Some of the FOIA processes, if you look under the hood, are incredibly inefficient,” Nate Jones, the director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive said, “Some are incredibly efficient. The reason we have a backlog is the inefficient ones are running up.”
Despite reports that inefficient processing of FOIA requests in 2017 that led to a backlog, the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy is claiming a 3.2 percent reduction of the backlogged FOIA requests in 2017.
While the federal government claims to work on reducing the backlog of requests, the National Archives and Records Administration is reporting that the oldest request on file is from 1998; 20 years ago. Other agencies such as the Department of State, the CIA, and the Department of Defense have requests from 2006. This information suggests the federal government does indeed have an issue with the timely processing of FOIA requests.
Another issue with FOIA requests is the instances where the requests are denied. In a Washington Times article written by Jeff Mordock, the FOIA denials were attributed to a 2009 memorandum by White House attorney Greg Craig that “encourages” the denials.
The Trump administration is standing by the Craig memorandum, in a statement by Ashley McGowan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, it was confirmed that it would remain in effect.
The question remains whether the issue is related to inefficient use of available resources, the government’s reluctance to release information to the public, or something as simple as not having enough staff to process the increased demand for information.
“It’s easy to bash the government for their poor FOIA performance, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s terrible, but you have to give them a bit of a break because it is a hard job,” said Lee Steven, assistant vice president at the Cause of Action Institute, a limited-government advocacy group.
A FOIA request allows the public to obtain records from a government agency, but there are restrictions on what can be released. Information on FOIA exclusions can be obtained at FOIA FAQ’s.
Bridis, T. (2018, March 12). US sets new record for censoring, withholding gov’t files. ABC6 News. Retrieved from https://abc6onyourside.com/news/nation-world/us-sets-new-record-for-censoring-withholding-govt-files
Heckman, J. (2018, June 8). Despite hiring freeze agencies processed record number of FOIA requests in backlog in FY17. Federal News Network. Retrieved from https://federalnewsnetwork.com/agency-oversight/2018/06/despite-hiring-freeze-agencies-processed-record-number-of-foia-requests-in-fy-17/
Mordock, J. (2018, January 2). Feds stiff-arm taxpayers’ requests for information. The Washington Times. Retrieved from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jan/2/foia-requests-drawn-out-decades/
US Department of Justice (2018). FOIA data. Retrieved from https://www.foia.gov/data.html
US Department of Justice (2018). FOIA FAQs. Retrieved from https://www.foia.gov/faq.html