FIRST GOVERNMENT-WIDE AUDIT ON FREEDOM
SHOWS MIXED IMPACT OF ATTORNEY GENERAL ASHCROFT MEMO
RESPONSES RANGE FROM "DRASTIC"
CHANGE TO "YEAH. OK.";
MIDDLE GROUND SEES "MORE THUNDER THAN LIGHTNING"
Requests to 35 agencies handling 97%
of FOIA load reveal system in disarray,
Inaccurate contact info, lost requests, long lag times,
and lack of oversight.
WASHINGTON, D.C., 14 MARCH 2003 - The National
Security Archive at George Washington University today released
results from the first-ever government-wide audit of federal
responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The audit shows dramatic variations in agency reactions
to the restrictive FOIA guidance issued by Attorney General
John Ashcroft in October 2001.
Some agencies concluded the Ashcroft memo represented a
"drastic" and "fundamental" change;
others saw no change or said "Yeah. OK" when asked
about impact. Most agencies (17 out of 33) just forwarded
copies of the memo to FOIA officers without changing regulations,
guidance or training materials; and one summarized the prevailing
feeling as "more thunder than lightning."
The FOIA audit is a methodology pioneered by state and
local journalism groups that file simultaneous requests
with multiple government offices, then compile the results
to identify best and worst practices. The Archive's audit
included the 25 federal agencies with the largest FOIA caseloads,
plus 10 other high-profile agencies. In September 2002,
the Archive filed a FOIA request by fax with each of the
35 agencies asking for records relating to the October 2001
Ashcroft memo, specifically for any changes in agency guidance,
regulations, or training materials on FOIA resulting from
the Ashcroft memo. Only 11 of the agencies responded in
the 20-day period provided by statute; 2 are still pending;
and 3 agencies lost the requests. The Archive followed up
with interviews of agency officials, especially where the
response was "no records."
The process of filing successful requests at 35 agencies
revealed a federal FOIA system in extreme disarray. Agency
contact information on the web was often inaccurate; response
times largely failed to meet the statutory standard; only
a few agencies performed thorough searches including e-mail
and meeting notes; and the lack of central accountability
at the agencies resulted in lost requests and inability
to track progress.
The Archive posted today on its web site, www.nsarchive.org,
the complete correspondence, documents produced, and detailed
agency-by-agency Audit report (titled "The
Ashcroft Memo: "Drastic" Change or "More
Thunder than Lightning"?), and made the lead
presentation at the annual Freedom of Information Day conference
hosted by the Freedom Forum. Authors of the Audit include
the Archive's general counsel, Meredith Fuchs; the director
of the Archive's Freedom of Information Project, Will Ferroggiaro;
and Archive research associate Barbara Elias; along with
Archive executive director Thomas Blanton. Funding for the
Audit was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Still underway is the second phase of the Archive's FOIA
Audit, measuring agency responses to the March 2002 White
House memo on weapons of mass destruction and sensitive
but unclassified information. Preliminary results indicate
that this memo seems to have generated more agency action
than the Ashcroft memo did. Also underway is a third phase
seeking to measure agency backlogs by asking for the ten
oldest pending requests.
"The Freedom of Information Act is one of the glories
of American democracy and an inspiration for open government
advocates around the world," commented Archive director
Thomas Blanton. "But the administrative system that
makes FOIA a reality is in grave disrepair, plagued with
delays, and byzantine in its complexity for the ordinary
requester; and Attorney General Ashcroft seems only to have
thrown sand in the gears."
Go to the FOIA Audit