Air Force to implement new FOIA system

National Security Archive's Rosemary Award

The Air Force, which was recently named as the worst federal agency in dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests, is developing a new system to manage FOIA requests servicewide.

The National Security Archives had criticized the service for numerous reasons, including that it fails to acknowledge FOIA requests, loses requests, fails to process requests, tries to discourage the public from pursuing requests, fails to respond to inquiries about the status of the requests and lets requests languish while records are destroyed or transferred to other agencies.

But in an interview with Federal Computer Week, Air Force officials defended their handling of FOIA requests and discussed forthcoming improvements to the FOIA system.

The new system, scheduled for implementation Oct. 1, is based on a similar application the Army has been using for the past two years. Air Force FACTS will be a Web-based system, hosted on the Air Force portal, where employees of the service can log on to check the status of requests being processed, said Larry Shade, chief of the Air Force’s information management policy branch. The Air Combat Command in Langley Air Force Base, Va., has been testing the new software system for over a year, he added.

“Our FOIA process has room for improvements,” acknowledged Brig. Gen. Rick Dinkins, deputy director of the policy, planning and resources directorate, warfighting integration and chief information office. Still, the Air Force processes more than 10,000 requests a year and has not exceeded the congressionally mandated 20-day median time for processing requests, he said.

Shade said that security clearance issues and interaction with other agencies has exacerbated the Air Force’s problems in dealing with requests. “We’re at the mercy of [other agencies’] FOIA programs,” he said.

Although consistency across the Air Force is important, FOIA is best managed at the component level, according to Dinkins. Therefore, Air Force headquarters will continue to let individual commands direct their FOIA efforts.

For example, the NSA had criticized Air Force headquarters for failing to establish an Electronic Reading Room to facilitate easy access to various service documents. But commands and agencies, which are closer to the information, should handle those materials, Shade said.

The NSA cited specific examples of negligence in its report. In one December 2006 incident, an Air Force courier picked up classified documents from the National Archives Records Administration that never arrived at Air Force offices. In another example, an unknown amount of responsive documents were lost forever when an Air Force computer hard drive crashed.

In 2005, the Archives filed suit against the Air Force for what it called “a pattern and practice of mishandling scores of FOIA requests.” The suit centers on 82 specific FOIA requests and administrative appeals that the Air Force has received since 1987.

In 2006, Judge Collyer of the Washington D.C., federal district court stated in her decision that the Air Force has “failed miserably to handle Archive FOIA requests in a timely manner” and “has engaged in a pattern or practice of failing to make timely determinations on its FOIA requests and appeals.”

The Air Force claims that the requests mentioned in the lawsuit are either classified or historical in nature, making their completion difficult. Also, the Air Force has cleared all but 6 of those discrepancies, according to Shade.

Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel to the NSA, welcomed the changes promised by the Air Force but remained skeptical until reforms materialize. The Air Force is trying to improve its system, but years of neglect have made the effort more difficult, she said.

“We have not seen any marked improvement in their FOIA program,” Fuchs said, adding that the challenges faced by the Air Force are universal to all DOD services and agencies.

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