D.C., July 2, 2007 - The oldest Freedom of Information
Act (FOIA) requests still pending in the federal government were
first filed two decades ago, during the Reagan presidency, according
to the Knight
Open Government Survey released today by the National
Security Archive at George Washington University.
"Forty years after the law went into effect, we're seeing
twenty years of delay," said Tom Blanton, the Archive's director,
noting the July 4, 1967 implementation date for FOIA. "Sunlight
is the best disinfectant, but this kind of inexcusable delay by
federal agencies just keeps us in the dark."
In January 2007, the Archive filed FOIA requests with the 87
leading federal agencies and components for copies of their "ten
oldest open or pending" FOIA requests. The Department of
State, responding to an Archive "ten oldest" request
for the first time, reported ten pending requests older than 15
years--the majority of the oldest requests in the entire federal
government. Other agencies with the oldest requests include the
Air Force, CIA, and two components of the Justice Department,
the Criminal Division and the FBI.
"A lot can happen in 20 years. The Internet grew to adulthood
in less time than it has taken our federal government to deal
with these outstanding Freedom of Information requests,"
said Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at
the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which supports the
Archive's FOIA audits. "Americans once said they had the
best open government laws in the world. Is that still true?"
The Knight Open Government Survey also identifies ten federal
agencies that misrepresented their FOIA backlogs to Congress.
For example, the Justice Department's Office of Information and
Privacy--which is leading the opposition to current FOIA reform
legislation passed by the U.S. House and pending in the Senate--claimed
in its most recent report to Congress that its oldest request
was from 2002, but provided the Archive with a package of oldest
requests dating back to 2001.
CLARIFICATION: The Department
of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy (OIP) has informed
the Archive that the October 22, 2001 request reported as OIP's
oldest was first received by the DOJ-OIP on February 5, 2002. OIP
indicated that the request was not delayed by intra-agency
routing, but likely was delayed as a result of the Anthrax mail
screening program that took place in 2001-2002. Because agencies
calculate their response time from the date of receipt of the
request, OIP's report to Congress listing its oldest pending
request as dating from February 5, 2002 is not inaccurate.
"It is remarkable to see data showing that agencies are
not able to accurately answer Congress's questions about their
backlogs, and at the same time hear that the Department of Justice
is objecting to a law that would require agencies to assign tracking
numbers to FOIA requests," commented the Archive's General
Counsel Meredith Fuchs, referring to the DOJ's objections to the
pending OPEN Government Act (S. 849).
The Archive's new Survey also showed several agencies contradicting
their own responses to the Archive's two previous "ten oldest"
audits. These agencies coughed up requests in 2007 that were significantly
older than the requests they produced in 2003 or 2005. Ms. Fuchs
noted, "We have been receiving letters from agencies asking
us whether we are willing to abandon our long-pending requests,
and the Treasury Department actually admitted that it had destroyed
several of our FOIA requests several years ago despite the fact
that Treasury had never responded to the requests."
Bipartisan Congressional efforts to solve some of the problems
exposed in the Archive's "ten oldest" audits have stalled
in the Senate, with Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona personally
holding S. 849 from an up-or-down vote. The bill would impose
penalties for agency delay, mandate accurate and timely tracking
and reporting of FOIA requests, and give FOIA requesters new tools
to hold agencies accountable, including reimbursing attorneys'
fees when agencies play litigation games against requesters. The
House passed its Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007
with a significant bipartisan majority.
The Emmy- and George Polk Award-winning
National Security Archive at the George Washington University has
carried out five government-wide audits of FOIA performance over
the last five years. All of the Archive's reports are available
online at www.nsarchive.org.
The John S. and James L. Knight
Foundation promotes journalism excellence worldwide and invests
in the vitality of the U.S. communities where the Knight brothers
owned newspapers. Since 1950 the foundation has granted nearly
$300 million to advance journalism quality and the freedom of