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.

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