Response to FOIA requests varies significantly

Government agencies vary widely in their responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, according to an analysis by The Hill.

Congress is weighing changes to FOIA because some agencies are slow to respond and provide incomplete information. This move to reform the law comes years after the Bush administration adopted a stricter interpretation of FOIA, raising criticism from government watchdog groups.

The Hill asked more than 100 government agencies to provide a list of the FOIA requests they have received over a series of months, including the names of the requestors, their affiliations and the nature of the documents they were seeking.

Some agencies — such as the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — replied promptly with all the data requested. Both others took months to respond, and when a few of them did they provided little information.

The Department of Labor Employment Standards Administration took more than five months to reply, and the agency noted that it took more than four months for the request to reach the relevant office.

Many executive entities — such as the Department of Transportation and the Federal Maritime Commission — provided the names of the people requesting FOIA but did not list their affiliations. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, meanwhile, failed to mention what documents were being sought.

The Social Security Administration responded in a timely manner but was the only agency to state that it does not keep such FOIA records in one place.

Like other agencies, the Department of Defense’s inspector general (IG) blacked out certain names and information, citing privacy exemptions to FOIA. But unlike others, the IG used a pen that did not shield the names and data.

The Department of Agriculture and the Farm Credit Administration’s responses were handwritten. The Agency for International Development also provided a handwritten reply, but parts of it were illegible.

The National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) said it could not provide all requested information because of “a backlog of initial requests as well as limited personnel resources.” It claimed “even if we do locate the responsive records, additional time will be required to process them for release.”

To obtain records sooner, some organizations have turned to the courts. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is suing the NIGC for failing to respond to a FOIA request. Likewise, People for the American Way has brought a number of lawsuits against the government.

“We’ve had to take four FOIA cases to court,” said Elliot Mincberg, senior vice president and legal director at People for the American Way and the People for the American Way Foundation. “We inevitably find that once we’re in court, the government ends up retreating in some instances.”

A mixed bag of FOIA responses is not unusual. Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, attempted a similar experiment in late 2004 and discovered discrepancies among agencies.

Schwellenbach wrote to more than 100 agencies and “at least a dozen haven’t responded after almost a year,” he said. Schwellenbach cited “understaffed and underfunded” FOIA offices as the fundamental cause of the problem.

Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, recounted a 12-year wait for National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency documents.

Mincberg blamed the administration for the FOIA lapses. “There’s no question since the start of the Bush administration, there have been problems with the government’s response and release of information. The government is looking for reasons to withhold information.”

However, Mincberg credited some agencies with efficiency, saying, “There are people at the career level committed to fulfilling FOIA.” Mincberg was wary of elaborating on which agencies complied. “I’m afraid to mention any agencies because they may not respond so positively [in the future],” he said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced the Faster FOIA Act of 2005, which would create a commission to address delays in FOIA processing.

The senators have also unveiled the Open Government Act of 2005, which would establish a FOIA ombudsman to review agency FOIA compliance and provide alternatives to litigation. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has introduced companion legislation in the House.

Elizabeth Fulk and Otto Turton contributed to this report.