Watchdog: Pentagon needs to update FOIA policies

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The Department of Defense (DOD) needs to improve its policies on responding to public-records requests, according to a new inspector general report.

The Pentagon’s inspector general evaluated the department’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies at the request of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who wanted to know whether political appointees were adversely affecting responses from January 2007 to July 2015.

{mosads}While the report called for the Pentagon to implement changes, it found no evidence of appointed officials unduly influencing responses to requests.

“Our evaluation did not disclose any instances of a noncareer official unduly influencing the FOIA response process,” said the inspector general report, released Thursday. “However, we found that the DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer’s Transparency Office has not updated DoD FOIA policies to reflect current FOIA requirements.”

To test whether appointees’ influence resulted in delays or the withholding of information in response to FOIA requests, the inspector general sent questionnaires to each of the Pentagon’s 32 FOIA offices, interviewed five FOIA officials and reviewed complaints left on a hotline.

The inspector general found one instance of an appointee outside of the Pentagon becoming involved in a FOIA response. But his involvement did not result in undue delays or withholding of information, according to the report.

In that instance, a FOIA request included information that pertained to the White House and the Justice Department, according to the report. So, the Pentagon forwarded the request to the White House for review. The White House official then suggested the Pentagon also forward it to the Justice Department.

“We concluded that the noncareer official’s suggestion to send the request to the Department of Justice for its review was reasonable and did not unduly delay the FOIA request,” the report said. “Also, the process used in this instance aligns with DoD FOIA policy for referring FOIA requests to other federal agencies when appropriate.”

But, the report said, two policies that govern the Pentagon’s FOIA responses are outdated and don’t reflect a 2005 executive order or a 2007 law.

For example, one of the policies hasn’t been updated in 17 years, the report said. As such, the policy doesn’t include a requirement that those who make FOIA requests get the names and titles of each person responsible for denying a request, nor does it include a requirement that the public liaison official help resolve disputes between the requester and the agency.

Also, informal guidance from 2009 for processing “significant” FOIA requests that may be of interest to the media, public, Congress or senior Pentagon officials was never made formal, according to the report. 

In a written response included in the report, the Pentagon’s Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer partially agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations.

The office did not agree that its main policy doesn’t reflect the 2005 executive order and the 2007 law, since the policy has been updated since both of those happened.

But the office said the Pentagon is in the process of crafting a new manual to replace the 17-year-old policy. It also said it’s in the process of reviewing the 2009 informal guidance on “significant” FOIA requests to see if it needs updating.

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