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Freedom of Information requests are slow

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It occurred to me a few years ago that it would be interesting to get ahold of my father's FBI file.

I went to the FBI website. At the time (late 2009), they had a fascinatingly bad web interface. [Link added a couple weeks later, when I discovered that I had preserved some of the form for posterity as a blog entry.] It said to go to their form and enter your information and click send—but the “form” was just a paper form converted to HTML. Instead of text boxes, it had rows of underscores. There was a SEND button, but it didn't do anything at all; it wasn't hooked up to anything. I suspect some underpaid FBI secretary took a Word document, saved it as HTML, somehow added a nonfunctional SEND button, and put it up on their website. And never noticed that they never received requests via the form.

I told them about the problem, but got back a standard form letter telling me to fill in the form.

Fast-forward to summer of 2012, when I decided to try again. By now, the ridiculous form had been removed from the website; it now said you could submit a request via email. So I did that, on August 23. I got back an autoresponse on August 27, saying that it had been received. In October, about seven weeks later, I got a paper letter from the FBI telling me my request number and telling me where to enter that number online to find out the status of my request.

In late January, I checked on the status, and it told me that it was in progress.

I tried emailing the contact address to find out whether it should be taking this long. I got a bounce.

I tried phoning the contact number. I got an extremely scratchy recording, almost impossible to understand. I left a detailed message with my name and phone number. I got no response.

I tried calling again today, and actually reached a human! Unsurprisingly, he sounded harried. I asked him (very politely) how long it normally takes to process a request. He said that for a simple request like mine it was averaging 150 days from the date of receipt (which in my case is October even though I got an autoresponse seven weeks before that). He noted (if I understood right) that if a case has taken over 150 days (mine will hit that mark next week), you should allow up to another 180 days.

In other words, it can take almost a year to get a response to a FOIPA request.

I imagine they get a huge number of requests. (He said he gets a thousand emails a day, but he may've been speaking loosely.) My impression is that he's the only person who handles incoming requests—the emails I've received have had his name on them, and his name is on the recording. I imagine they're understaffed and underpaid, and they certainly have more important things to do.

Still, when journalists and nonprofits talk about having gotten information by filing FOIPA requests, it never occurs to me that it might have taken the government a year to get back to them.

As usual, I also feel that it would be useful for the web page to say how long to expect it to take; surely that would reduce the number of irate emails and phone calls they receive. But I certainly know the feeling of being too swamped to do the tasks that would reduce the levels of incoming work.

Anyway. I sympathize with them, and this isn't a hugely important thing. Mostly I'm just surprised.

2 Comments

I may just be cynical, but I'd assume that at least some of this is deliberate on their part. They certainly don't have any incentive to turn these around quickly (it's not like they're being paid by the request), and might have some incentive to discourage people from getting information. The particular guy who's overworked and underpaid probably isn't a bad actor, but the people who decided not to hire a dozen of him, or a hundred, or to give him a bigger budget, or whatever, surely didn't make that decision by accident. And I don't think they made it in the interest of encouraging the dissemination of information, either.


I certainly agree that if the goal were to maximize openness, they could put a lot more resources into this.

I would guess that there are people in government who would like to discourage FOIA requests, because they have the potential to embarrass the government and reveal Things The Public Was Not Meant To Know. But I would also guess (or at least I'd like to believe this is true) that there are at least a few other people in government who would like to encourage FOIA requests, because they believe in open access to stuff. After all Congress did enact FOIA in the first place.

But I suspect that even those who would like to see more openness don't hold that as a super-high priority, and thus aren't willing to fight to get a lot more funding/resources applied to the situation, especially given more pressing economic concerns.

Anyway, I'm just talking through my hat; certainly I don't have any reason to disbelieve a more cynical take on the situation. I've just got my rose-colored glasses on.

...I should mention that the status-check page has said this for the past couple weeks or so:

"The FBI FOIA Document Processing System (FDPS) is presently undergoing a scheduled upgrade. Although new requests are still being accepted, there may be some delay. This upgrade will enhance our ability to process the large volume of requests made to the FBI’s FOIA program."

On the one hand, it's a very slow scheduled upgrade. On the other hand, it does suggest that they're at least trying to put *some* new resources in place, even if they'll still be inadequate.


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