FBI cited for worst FOIA responses

An open-government group cited the FBI today for poor response to requests for records by giving the bureau its annual award for “outstandingly bad responsiveness to the public that flouts the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act” (FOIA).

George Washington University’s National Security Archive gave its "Rosemary Award" to the FBI for what the group found to be a high percentage of “no records” responses to FOIA requests in 2008 and the low percentage of requests that the FBI granted. According to the archive, last year the FBI gave “no records” responses to 57 percent of the requests it processed and provided documents in less than 14 percent of the cases. In addition, the group said the FBI granted only 89 FOIA requests in full by providing unredacted versions of all the documents requested.

The archive said FBI’s FOIA response rates were worse than the other major agencies and criticized the time it took the bureau to respond to record requests. Tom Blanton, that group’s director, also cited problems with the way the bureau searches its computer systems for records that have been requested.

“Modern information processing uses search algorithms and full-text retrieval to find and rank search results,” Blanton said in announcing the award. “The FBI’s process, in contrast, is designed to send FOIA requesters away frustrated and no doubt has the same effect on the FBI’s own agents.”

Bill Carter, an FBI spokesman, said that the bureau checks requests against its universal name index. He attributed the number of “no records” responses to the volume of requests the FBI gets that involve people trying to find out if they themselves have an FBI file. Many of those people do not have files, he said.

“A lot of what we see is people making FOIA requests to see if there is an FBI file on them,” he said.

Carter said the bureau makes a good-faith effort to see if a record exists and that involves searching the main entries in the FBI's records system to see if any of them match what is being requested. He added that the FBI doesn’t generally search for cross-references or mere mentions of a person or subject, unless the requester specifically asks for that information.

“It’s based on the specificity of the requests,” he said.

Meanwhile, the archive also said the FBI has a “longstanding practice of refusing to process requests for documents about a living individual without a signed privacy waiver from the person permitting the release of his or her records.”

Carter said some requests are denied because they are classified, involve an ongoing investigation or their disclosure would violate the Privacy Act.

The Treasury Department, the CIA and the Air Force are past winners of the award, named after the late Rose Mary Woods, the secretary to President Richard Nixon who testified that she inadvertently erased several minutes of audiotapes containing secret recordings of Oval Office conversations.

The award coincides with Sunshine Week, a nationwide open-government program funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private organization that promotes excellence in journalism and also funds the archive.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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