Defense Department Tells MuckRock It Will Need To Come Up With $660 Million To Cover FOIA Request Fees

from the in-other-words,-the-GDP-of-Switzerland dept

Nothing quite tells the public to mind its own business like attaching a ridiculous fee demand to an FOIA response. It’s pretty easy to price the public out of the transparency market, seeing as it doesn’t have access to the monetary resources its tax dollars are paying for.

We’ve covered a few of the more ridiculous FOIA fee demands here at Techdirt, like:

The City of Ferguson charging $135/hour for FOIA response work — a rate roughly 10 times the hourly wage of entry-level city clerk’s office employees.

The City of McKinney telling Gawker emails related to a police misconduct investigation would run 9,000 hours and cost $79,000.

The Florida State’s Attorney’s Office demanding $180,000 to turn over records on a questionable suicide.

The FBI telling MuckRock that it would cost $270,000 to respond to an FOIA request about Booz Allen — and that’s with an electronic file “discount” of over $6,000 applied.

MuckRock has now topped that last number… exponentially. Martin Peck’s FOIA request for information on the Dept. of Defense’s use of “HotPlug” systems (a portable power pack that keeps seized devices from powering down) has resulted in an FOIA fee estimate exceeding a half-billion dollars.

Mr. Robert R. Jarrett, Director of Operations, Defense Procurement Acquisition Policy, and a FOIA Initial Denial Authority, stated that it is possible that contracts that acquired the requested items are present in the Electronic Documents Access (EDA) system; however, there are more than 30 million contracts in EDA, consisting of more than 45 million documents. No method exists for a complete text search of EDA, as some documents are scans of paper copies. The estimated time required to perform the necessary redactions of proprietary data, assuming 20 minutes per document, is estimated to be 15 million labor hours at an estimated cost of $660 million.

While this amount may be couch change for the DoD (0.1% of its $573 billion budget), it’s ridiculously out of reach for any US citizen without billions of dollars to their name. Then there’s the question of feasibility. Even if every man, woman and child in America tossed MuckRock a couple of bucks to push this request forward, the estimate of 15 million labor hours suggests the DoD will never fulfill it. If the DoD throws 30 people at the problem 24 hours a day without a day off, Peck still shouldn’t expect a response until 2073 at the earliest.

This astronomical estimate says two things about the DoD, though. One, it apparently uses these forensic devices frequently enough that searching for responsive documents will be a massive undertaking. Two, it says the Electronic Document Access system is not nearly as useful as its name would suggest, what with document scans not being searchable. This is a government-wide problem and one that no one’s too interested in fixing.

Many FOIA responses contain documents scanned at skewed angles using the worst hard copy available. It happens often enough that it almost appears the government is seeking to maintain a level of obfuscation while still paying lip service to transparency. Sure, a released document is better than no response at all, but the insistence on releasing documents capable of defeating OCR software prevents collation of similar documents and thwarts search efforts for relevant info — both on the government’s end and the public’s.

This decision will be appealed and the request narrowed significantly, but I imagine the DoD’s database will continue to thwart both its FOIA response team and requesters like Peck, for years to come.

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Comments on “Defense Department Tells MuckRock It Will Need To Come Up With $660 Million To Cover FOIA Request Fees”

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36 Comments
SW (profile) says:

“Many FOIA responses contain documents scanned at skewed angles using the worst hard copy available. It happens often enough that it almost appears the government is seeking to maintain a level of obfuscation while still paying lip service to transparency.”

I think you’re ascribing malicious intent into sheer laziness. Record center contractors get paid by the number of pages they do. They need to fulfill a ccertain number of scans in a time period. They don’t have to be *good* scans, and of course there are perverse incentives to doing good QC.

And most tech services are done by contractors who change every 5-10 years, which doesn’t do much for creating a stable cohesive database system. So I’m not surprised that the DoD system is even more messed up than the EPA system was that I worked on. Throw in multiple regions, all with different systems, and yeah, the entire back end is a mess.

Not that I’m excusing the cost, but it’s hardly a simple task to get all the documents, even if they are supposed to be available. And most of the cost of FOIA isn’t from the document management side, it’s because all of the documents need to be reviewed by a lawyer, who gets paid hourly, and well.

The reasonable thing would be to create a redacted copy of a document when it gets scanned/added, but dear God, the number of records generated is breathtaking, far beyond the ability for anyone to do more than a cursory indexing of them, let alone the time-intensive work of redaction.

Tl;dr: you’re assuming that the federal government has its record management stuff together far more than it does, and it’s more about bad management, perverse incentives, and entropy than it is malice.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I agree with you 100%.

The real solution isn’t to create a redacted copy of a document though, it’s to properly use document markers when filling out the document in the first place. Then a system can read the markers and redact as needed prior to sending to a recipient with specific clearance matched against the markers.

Any failures in this method cascade back to the person submitting the original document. All the lawyer has to do is review the redacted documents to ensure that the markers were applied correctly.

And one more thing:
MARKERS CANNOT BE REDACTED. This way, while a document returned for a FOIA request might be all blacked out, the reasons for blacking it all out are apparent, which adds at least a modicum of accountability to the process (ie: if all paragraphs in a document titled “Base Dry Cleaning Tender” come up marked “TS”, there should be huge red flags, and heads should roll for being so lazy as to cause others undue work.

https://fas.org/sgp/othergov/dod/nimaguide.pdf already exists; if it were actually USED, this wouldn’t be an issue. The main issue comes from there being no consequesnces in the DoD for not using this document properly.

Peter says:

High time for the overseers to investigate!

While this may be a FOIA-request, the scenario ‘give me everything we have on …’ is the most standard use case for document management systems.

If each of these searches costs the tax payer 0.1 % of a $573 billion budget, those tax cuts we have been promised for a while now may finally become a reality, when the DoD is encouraged to upgrade its infrastructure, with OCR and metadata search …

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Redacted

But they only need to redact the documents that are actually responsive. 20 minutes to redact might be OK. But the vast majority of records in that database aren’t going to be responsive, and it takes way less than 20 minutes to find that out.

Not that it matters; even if it only takes six seconds to see whether a document is responsive, it’s still going to be over a million dollars.

Pixelation says:

Okay, let’s see. Every time the DOD needs to get information from a contract it costs roughly $660 million. If they search once a week on average, it costs taxpayers ~$34,320,000,000 per year. If they want us to honestly believe this, some heads need to roll. Really. There must be some serious dead weight at the top.
Eliminate those in charge of the DOD and eliminate the National Debt in less than a year.

A Nameless Viking says:

How are we not bankrupt?

With “we” I mean Sweden, where I live, of course.

Sweden has the worlds oldest FOI laws, dating back to the 18th century. Our government is not allowed to charge for FOI requests. With these “costs”, how can we not be long bankrupt?

It’s worth noticing that actually charging for them would be hard. If you walk into an office and make your request in person, government officials are not only forbidden to ask for ID or even your name, but also to try to find out who you are. This also makes it hard to harass anyone making a request, which is of course the whole point.

C McQueen says:

Taxpayers' Money > Ridiculous Requests

How about making people pay for wasting tax payers’ money for outrageous requests? The public records officers don’t just make up the number of hours it takes to review documents. It takes a very long time to ensure the security of information that, for various reasons, is not legal to disclose. Government can be sued for disclosing information. I people would just ask for what they need instead of *everything*, they could get what they want without the government spending a ridiculous amount of money hiring more people to review records for *one* request.

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