FOIA -- the black hole

Bill calls for posting status of requests

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Many agency officials are familiar with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Some know it all too well.

Federal agencies devote dozens of lawyers and hours of staff time to reading FOIA requests, searching for documents and determining whether to release them.

Now, some lawmakers want to update the law by opening a window on the FOIA process. A Senate bill calls for using electronic databases to track the status of requests for government information. The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National (OPEN) Government Act also seeks tougher deadlines for agency compliance and telephone and Internet hot lines to help people track their requests.

"The legislation would restore meaningful deadlines for agency action and impose real consequences on federal agencies for missing statutory deadlines," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), speaking at a March 15 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security Subcommittee. "And it will help identify agencies plagued by excessive delay."

The database technology described in the proposed legislation would be similar to that used at other agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service, which lets taxpayers track the status of their returns and refunds. The technology would help relieve people's frustration about sending requests into what often appears to be a black hole.

A similar online system is in place in Texas, where state officials offer an open government Web site to help information seekers. In addition, the state has a toll-free number, said Katherine Minter Cary, chief of the Texas Attorney General's Office's Open Records Division.

"There is no question that the addition of a similar system under the proposed OPEN Government Act would provide citizens with the customer service, attention and access that citizens deserve from their public servants," Cary testified before the subcommittee.

Some federal agencies already accept electronic requests, but more than half of all federal agencies do not process FOIA requests electronically, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued last year.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union support the bill because it modernizes the 40-year-old statute and "bucks the growing trend of hiding government action from public scrutiny," said Lisa Graves, senior counsel for legislative strategy at the ACLU.

Graves also told the panel that, in an era of outsourcing, agencies should not be able to circumvent freedoms protected by the Constitution and federal law by assigning government recordkeeping functions to private contractors.

Providing electronic status updates on FOIA requests won't be inexpensive, experts say. Developers would need at least several years to build databases to comply with the proposed requirements.

Beyond the technical issues, questions abound about which documents should be available under FOIA. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, chairman of the independent 9-11 Commission, said much government information is unavailable since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But some policy-makers are determined to make changes in a law that they say is becoming stale. Cornyn, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sponsors of the OPEN Government Act, have introduced a companion piece of legislation that calls for appointing a commission to work on ways to reduce FOIA delays.

"Many FOIA requests are processed efficiently, but others drag out inexplicably, sometimes for years," Leahy said. "Some agencies have not filled requests from the late 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though the requestors have repeated their requests for the information."

House members have introduced similar legislation to update FOIA.

A proposal for cutting delays

The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2005 would expedite how agencies handle requests for government information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by:

  • Helping people get timely responses to their requests.
  • Providing FOIA officials with the tools they need to fill requests.
  • Ensuring that FOIA rules are enforced when agency officials outsource their recordkeeping functions.
  • Establishing telephone and Internet hot line services to help people track FOIA requests' status.
  • Requiring agencies to report annually on their use of the Homeland Security Department's disclosure exemption for critical infrastructure information.
  • — Judi Hasson

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