FBI Changes FOIA Policies, Tries To Route More Requesters To Fax Machines, Mailboxes
from the FBI-FOIA:-where-the-present-is-always-several-years-away dept
The FBI’s relationship with the FOIA is, at the very least, contentious. The agency clearly would rather follow the letter of the law than its spirit… but only the letters it likes. It will technically release documents — sometimes years after the request is made — even if said documents are nothing more than a mostly blank paper telling the requester that all 509 pages have been withheld.
To the FBI — and to its official FOIA stats — this release of nothing counts as a “response.” Even cutting itself this much slack on “responses” hasn’t helped the FBI’s FOIA stats. This has led to it preemptively declaring any response that may include more than 50 pages as “complex,” in hopes of massaging its clearly awful response times.
Considering the FBI’s open antagonism towards FOIA requesters, it comes as no surprise the agency is making it even more difficult for requesters to make requests. The Daily Dot reports on the FBI’s latest changes to its FOIA policies.
At the beginning of March, the FBI will no longer accept FOIA requests via email. Instead, requesters will have to rely on fax machines and standard mail (“snail mail”) in order to communicate with the agency’s records management division. The agency will also accept a fraction of requests through an online portal, provided users agree to a terms-of-service agreement and are willing to provide the FBI with personal information, including a phone number and physical address.
In the year of our various lords two-thousand-seventeen, the FBI is pushing requesters towards fax machines and snail mail. Why? Because it makes it incrementally more of a hassle to request documents from the agency. Sure, there are a number of options online to turn emails into faxes, but it’s just one more hoop to jump through, put into place by the FBI with absolutely zero justification.
Anything that discourages the filing of a request is a win in the FBI’s book. Anything that makes the process more time consuming is just another deterrent. And forcing electronic requesters to provide a phone number and physical address is completely nonsensical. This itself is a deterrent, as some requesters may not feel comfortable giving the FBI this information in exchange for a pile of redated PDF pages at some point in the next six months-five years.
And there’s no guarantee requests sent in the FBI’s preferred form will even make it through. As was noted here a few years ago, an agency with an annual budget in the high billions (Defense Dept.) was sending letters to requesters to inform them that the Department’s FOIA fax machine was broken and might not be replaced until the beginning of the next fiscal year.
Add to that the FBI’s internal search system, which appears to be deliberately designed to avoid finding responsive documents. Some of the equipment dates back to the 1980s, and the databases it accesses are siloed off from each other, preventing cross-searches for specified terms. Requesters need to know as much about FOIA documents searches as the FBI’s FOIA response team in order to coax even a minimum of compliance from the agency.
The good news is that the FBI has been shamed into rolling back part of its “fax and stamps” FOIA demands. It would still prefer requesters use the most archaic form possible when asking for documents, but it has rolled back restrictions it placed on requests made through its online portal.
Earlier on Tuesday, the FBI told the Daily Dot it would remove the limit on the number of submissions requesters could make and allow users to file requests 24 hours a day.
“The FBI eFOIA portal has been under development and testing for two years. With the full implementation of the portal on March 1, 2017, the terms of service for the site will be modified to allow an unlimited number of requests, no limitation on the number of requests which may be submitted by an individual, and availability seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” the FBI said in a statement.
Even with this belated fix, the FBI has still drawn the attention of Senator Ron Wyden, who plans to ask a bunch of pointed FOIA questions at his earliest convenience.
“Sen. Wyden has a number of concerns about the FBI’s new FOIA policy, even with the revisions announced today,” Keith Chu, Wyden’s spokesman, told the Daily Dot in an email. “He plans to ask FBI how it justifies limiting access to information the public has a right to access.”
I’m sure the agency will inform Ron Wyden that it performs the statutory minimum to comply with FOIA law, even if this “compliance” results in routine, lengthy response delays and multiple lawsuits. But it may find it harder to explain how it arrived at the conclusion it could do even LESS than it already does by instituting these policies.