FBI Seeks To Massage Lousy FOIA Response Times, Deter Requesters By Calling All Responses Over 50 Pages 'Complex'
from the further-breaking-a-badly-malfunctioning-system dept
The FBI has reams of documents of interest to the public. And it knows it. That’s why it plays keepaway with so much of them. Sometimes it releases tons of fully-redacted pages to requesters — a middle finger to government transparency that also serves as a “response” on the FOIA balance sheets, ensuring the agency fulfills the letter of law while spitting on its spirit.
Other times it just drags it feet. Requesters are often moved to sue the agency, thanks to its tendency to spend a year or four responding to FOIA requests. And that’s only if it hasn’t attempted to short-circuit the FOIA process by asking requesters for a small fortune in advance of its search for documents.
The FBI’s internal search mechanisms are deliberately broken, forcing FOIA requesters to become intimately familiar with the FBI’s multiple databases and search methods, none of which seem to overlap. And when documents are finally delivered, a vast array of exceptions are deployed to ensure the public is given only the murkiest version of transparency.
So, it comes as no surprise that the FBI has quietly decided to make it even more difficult for requesters to get their hands on documents. Michael Best of MuckRock explains.
According to the FBI’s website as of publication, a request still has to be 951 pages or more to qualify as large or complex.
From the FBI’s site:
Requests are divided into three different processing tracks based on the number of pages responsive to the request. A request is routed through a small processing track if it encompasses 50 pages or less, a medium processing track if it encompasses 51 to 950 pages, or a large processing track if it encompasses 951 pages or more. Requests that encompass a high volume of responsive records will take a longer time to process than requests that encompass a small volume of responsive records.
If your request encompasses more than 950 responsive pages, an FBI representative will contact you in an effort to reduce the fees and the processing time associated with your request.
That’s apparently been changed, although the FBI has yet to update its website more than a month after it made this internal decision.
However, according to correspondence the FBI sent on December 8th, the medium track for FOIA requests has been eliminated entirely.
From the FBI’s letter to Best:
Requests are processed in the order in which they are received through our multi-track processing system, and the FBI receives a voluminous amount of requests on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis. Requests are divided into two tracks–simple (under 50 pages of potentially responsive documents) and complex (over 50 pages of potentially responsive documents).
By calling more FOIA requests “complex,” the FBI can spend more time fulfilling them, charge more for their processing, and up its level of “responsiveness” by eliminating the most common medium-level “track” in its entirety.
The FBI likely has to do some serious number-massaging because it’s ability to respond in a timely manner flat-out sucks.
Even with this new definition, the FBI says that its average processing time for “simple” cases of 50 pages or less is 181 days – or slightly more than thirteen times the statutory limit. For complex cases, it’s 659 days – nearly fifty times what’s allowed by law.
As Best points out, this middle-track elimination will speed up the average time it takes for the agency to respond to “complex” requests. Crank out a few dozen 50-page “complex” requests a year and the upper end will begin to slide down towards the now-nonexistent “middle” track’s response times. But for a majority of requesters, processing times will now go UP, as theirs will now be called complex, even if the responsive page count barely clears the 50-page mark. There’s a lot of middle ground to be exploited in the 50-950-page range, all without a single beneficial outcome for the general public.