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Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

The Ten Oldest Pending FOIA Requests

The National Security Archive
Freedom of Information Act Audit

 
Press Release
Executive Summary
The Ten Oldest FOIA Requests in the Federal Government
Chart - Agency Response Times
Table - Oldest Outstanding FOIA Requests
Methodology
Findings Regarding The Ten Oldest FOIA Requests and FOIA Backlogs
Summary Discussion of Individual Agencies
Update on Phase One: The Ashcroft Memorandum
FOIA Audit Phase One: The Ashcroft Memo

 

 

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METHODOLOGY

The Archive's method for measuring the backlog of Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") requests submitted to the Federal Government was to file a FOIA request, by fax on January 31, 2003, to each of the 35 agencies that are part of the overall National Security Archive FOIA Audit (the "Audit"), seeking:

Copies of the [Agency's] ten oldest open or pending Freedom of Information Act requests currently being processed or held pending coordination with other agencies.

(the "Ten Oldest FOIA Requests"). The request went to the central FOIA processing office of each agency. For agencies with highly decentralized FOIA programs, the Archive limited the request to the Ten Oldest FOIA Requests pending in the Office of the Secretary, Solicitor, or other principal processing office. The statutory 20-business day time limit for a FOIA response expired on March 3, 2003. Each of 28 agencies with an outstanding Ten Oldest FOIA request was contacted by telephone between February 24, 2003 and March 10, 2003 to ask for an update on the status of the request.

Several agencies, including the Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation explained that their databases were not capable of searching for their oldest pending requests and that locating these aged, open FOIA requests was a burdensome task. Agencies that expressed this difficulty typically were not contacted again until April or May 2003, while other agencies were contacted on average once every four to six weeks.

Several agencies that received the request informed us that their FOIA programs are completely decentralized and that it is virtually impossible to amalgamate their oldest FOIA requests. The main FOIA office refers requests to components that independently process requests and also refer requests to their own components that independently process FOIA requests, and so on. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), as a single component of the Department of Labor, advised that it would have to contact at least 100 separate FOIA officers in order to find its Ten Oldest FOIA Requests. Others, such as the General Services Administration (GSA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have regional offices that operate independent FOIA programs. At many military agencies, the central FOIA offices serve as mail stops to organize requests, determine which components may maintain responsive documents and forward requests to these components. These central offices typically do not keep track of FOIA requests forwarded to components or requests that were sent directly to components by FOIA requesters. Army, Air Force, Navy, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Transportation are all extremely decentralized, and would have to do a substantial amount of work in order to locate their Ten Oldest FOIA Requests. It was not practicable for the Archive to file the several hundred additional FOIA requests necessary to obtain the actual Ten Oldest FOIA Requests from these agencies. In light of these practical problems, the Archive sent a FOIA request for the Ten Oldest FOIA Requests to the five components at each of these decentralized agencies that received the most FOIA requests for that agency in 2002. If there was an extraordinary degree of decentralization at any of these agency components, such as OSHA, the Archive further limited the scope of the request. Thus, the number of business days that have passed since the filing of the FOIA request with many of these components is far shorter than with the majority of the agencies.

One additional caveat regarding decentralization is that some of the FOIA requests that the agencies identified as still-pending may have been completed to the satisfaction of the requester by a different component than the one that responded with a copy of the FOIA request. The Archive did not track down all of the individual requesters to determine whether they agree that their request remains pending.

In the time taken to receive responses to the FOIA requests, some agencies may have completed processing of the oldest requests. Such is the case with respect to at least one request made by the Archive to the CIA in 1989; it was responded to on April 22, 2003 after the CIA had identified it as one of the CIA's Ten Oldest FOIA Requests.

Despite persistent inquiries, and after more than 190 business days, the Archive never received a complete, substantive response from the following agencies initially served with the FOIA request:

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development;
  • The Department of Labor;
  • The Department of State;
  • The Department of Transportation;
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration; and
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs.

The explanations provided by the agencies for their inability to respond are discussed below and in the individual agency summaries. As noted below, in some cases we followed up by making the FOIA request directly to departmental components, some of which have responded. The Archive decided to publish this report even with some agencies' data missing because over nine months have passed since initially submitting the requests on January 31, 2003.

As the Archive received responses to the FOIA requests, we looked at the Ten Oldest FOIA Requests still pending with each of the surveyed agencies and the annual FOIA report statistics reported by the agencies over the last five fiscal years. The Archive supplemented its analysis with a review of official guidance concerning annual reporting requirements and other publicly reported information, as referenced in the Audit Report.

In addition to our findings, this report provide a detailed summary for each agency reviewed regarding: (1) Recordkeeping Issues; (2) the Ten Oldest FOIA Requests; (3) Workload Statistics; (4) Backlog Statistics; and (5) Processing Time. Supporting materials for this report include the responses to our FOIA requests for the Ten Oldest FOIA Requests and a chart summarizing the agencies 1998-2002 annual FOIA report statistics. (Note 2)

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