Open government group says FOIA backlogs worse than reported

Five agencies have requests for public information that go back 15 years or more, according to a new review from an independent open government group.

Many of the 87 departments and component agencies reviewed face extensive backlogs of requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, the report from the National Security Archive at George Washington University stated. Some requests to the State Department, CIA, Air Force, Justice Department criminal division and FBI have been pending more than 15 years, the group said.

The review, released in anticipation of the 1967 FOIA law's 40th anniversary on July 4, found that the oldest pending FOIA request was made to the State Department on May 5, 1987, on behalf of the Church of Scientology. The request asked for all documents related to that church or "cults" from the department's offices responsible for the Vatican and Italy. And at least seven pending FOIA requests were made in the 1980s.

"Forty years after the law went into effect, we're seeing twenty years of delay," said Tom Blanton, the Archive's director. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this kind of inexcusable delay by federal agencies just keeps us in the dark."

The report is the result of a set of January 2007 FOIA requests filed by the Archive asking agencies for copies of their 10 oldest pending FOIA requests. Five months later, a third of the agencies had not responded, despite the fact the law requires responses within 20 days.

Responses from 10 agencies revealed pending FOIA requests older than what the agencies described to Congress in their fiscal 2006 annual FOIA reports, according to the group's analysis. The agencies were the Commerce, State and Treasury departments, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Health Inspection Service, the Air Force, the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI, the National Science Foundation and the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy.

A Justice spokeswoman said in a statement that the information and privacy office has correctly reported the date of its oldest request to Congress, using the date it was received by the office as provided for under the law.

The Justice Department's information and privacy office, which is responsible for providing FOIA guidance to the rest of the government, "shares the concern" about long delays encountered by some agencies in responding to FOIA requests, the spokeswoman said. "There is no single reason that causes long delays for certain requests," she said, adding that there are some general reasons. For example, some records contain classified information that can be reviewed only by officials with proper clearances.

The Archive also stated that an executive order signed by President Bush in December 2005 to encourage improvements to the FOIA process has not resulted in much progress.

As part of the executive order, the information and privacy office released guidance last week for agencies to report on the progress they have made or have committed to make to fix deficiencies encountered. Agency reports are due Aug. 1.

"The executive order provides a comprehensive framework for agencies to use to devise ways to improve their administration of the FOIA," the spokeswoman said. "Additional efforts under the executive order -- including follow-up reports, the setting of additional backlog reduction goals and specialized training -- all hold great potential to realize even greater improvement."

Five months ago, the House overwhelmingly passed sweeping legislation (H.R. 1309) to reform the FOIA system despite the Bush administration's contention the bill would impose substantial administrative and financial burdens on agencies.

Similar legislation (S. 849) awaits action on the Senate floor, but Sen. Jon Kyle, R-Ariz., has placed a hold on the bill because of the Justice Department's objections.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.