Exemption 10

Suit seeks to force agencies to give FOIA time estimates

Posted: Feb. 21, 2012 | Tags: FOIA, Freedom of Information, New York Times, truth-out.org, Wikileaks

The folks at truth-out.org have filed suit against the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department and several other federal agencies to force them to give the organization estimated dates for completing Freedom of Information Act requests.

The suit is based on the 2007 amendments to FOIA that required agencies to provide, among other things, “an estimated date on which the agency will complete action” on FOIA requests. Despite the clear statement in the law, some agencies don’t tell requesters when to expect results.

In a blog post explaining the suit, Jason Leopold reports that the FBI has refused to provide him with estimated completion dates, citing the bureau’s large volume of FOIA cases. (The post also contains an email exchange between FBI officials discussing how to respond to Leopold, which they mistakenly sent to him.)

This is the kind of issue that drives people crazy when it comes to FOIA implementation. The law is clear, and yet it isn’t followed. The Office of Government Information Services, which is part of the National Archives and acts as a “FOIA ombudsman,” warned agencies earlier this month that failing to give an estimated date of completion could be an invitation to a lawsuit.

Honestly, though, while it’s good to receive an estimated date for receiving records, our experience is that one shouldn’t put a lot of stock in those estimates. In one case, we’re still waiting for records from a request filed last June, which the agency said we would have in August.

Annual report update

Two more Cabinet level agencies, Commerce and Veterans Affairs, have filed their fiscal 2011 annual FOIA reports. That makes 10. Still waiting on Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Treasury. They were due Feb. 1. The Justice Department keeps a list of agency annual reports.

Wikileaks, the aftermath

While this blog focuses more on FOIA than on leaks, secrecy and other related topics, we were struck by the conclusion former New York Times Editor Bill Keller reached in an article published Sunday . Keller writes:  “The most palpable legacy of the WikiLeaks campaign for transparency is that the U.S. government is more secretive than ever.”

Keller is hardly a detached observer when it comes to Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange. The Times was an early collaborator with Wikileaks, publishing documents about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Later, the relationship deteriorated, especially after The Times published a profile somewhat critical of Assange. Keller wrote a lengthy explanation of the paper’s dealings with Assange and Wikileaks last year.

Now, Keller says, Wikileaks has prompted the Obama administration to prosecute several officials believed to have leaked other information to journalists. And the intelligence and defense agencies are creating systems to make it easier to track who has access to classified and sensitive documents.

“But it now seems clear that the WikiLeaks breach was one of a kind — and that even lesser leaks are harder than ever to come by,” Keller writes.

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