New push for a transformation of FOIA processing

Some say Gonzales’ new report should make Congress more receptive to needed reforms

In the past decade, agencies have been slow to use information technology to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, according to many reports. Open government advocates say a new report from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should set off a technological revolution in processing FOIA requests.

In his review of plans to improve FOIA operations, Gonzales found that many agencies want to use IT, including internal Web sites, to expedite their responses to requests for government information.

“Agencies have enthusiastically embraced the area of advanced technology and automation as a means of improving their FOIA operations, most particularly as a way of meeting the challenges faced by those with backlogs of complex FOIA requests,” Gonzales wrote in his report.

A December 2005 executive order directed the attorney general to issue a report on his assessment of agencies’ FOIA implementation goals and fiscal 2005 FOIA reports. Gonzales submitted his report to President Bush Oct. 16. In it, Gonzales said he wants agency officials to collaborate on cost-effective approaches to using IT to ensure FOIA compliance and reduce backlogs.

FOIA advocacy groups seized on the report as an opportunity to seek more support from lawmakers. Following its release, the National Security Archive, for example, sent letters to lawmakers to inform them that many agencies lack funding and other resources to achieve the IT goals outlined in Gonzales’ report.

Archive officials added that many agencies don’t yet comply with Electronic FOIA amendments passed in 1996. Those amendments require federal agencies to be able to receive and respond to FOIA requests electronically.

The National Security Archive, a research institute at George Washington University that collects and publishes declassified documents, wrote to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Government Reform Committee asking for hearings on whether agencies have made progress in using IT to facilitate responding to FOIA requests.

“It is unclear how the executive order will overcome a lack of agency commitment to FOIA when a statute enacted by Congress 10 years ago has been unable to achieve such a result,” National Security Archive officials wrote to committee leaders. The letter states that the Department of Veterans Affairs has determined that receiving FOIA requests by e-mail “is not viable for the agency and that a uniform tracking system across the agency would be impracticable.”

In response to the National Security Archive’s letter, Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) said an oversight hearing on FOIA is an excellent idea. But Platts said he would not introduce any IT-specific legislation because he thinks agencies need flexibility in designing the IT solutions that best meet their needs.

He added that the Bush administration’s interest in FOIA, as evidenced in the president’s executive order, and effective congressional oversight will help agencies secure the funding necessary to meet their FOIA responsibilities.

Meredith Fuchs, general counsel at the National Security Archive, said Congress should exercise a greater oversight role in solving FOIA problems.

“I agree that Congress shouldn’t be prescribing certain technological solutions, but Congress can call agencies up and have them explain what they are using and why it maybe isn’t good enough,” Fuchs said.

“They really need a threat in order to make progress,” she said.

Leahy focuses on technology policySenate Judiciary Committee staffers are still reviewing the U.S. attorney general’s new report on improving Freedom of Information Act operations, said Courtney Boone, the committee’s press secretary. But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee’s ranking member and primary author of the Electronic FOIA Amendments of 1996, said he shares many of the technology concerns that open-government groups have raised, such as the National Security Archive.

Leahy said he has asked President Bush to accept and implement a proposal in the attorney general’s report that federal agencies explore interagency approaches to using information technology to process FOIA requests.

Leahy co-sponsored the Senate version of the Open Government Act, which the Senate Judiciary Committee favorably reported in September. “I will continue to push for its enactment,” he said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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