FBI Says It Will Only Accept Snail Mail FOIA Requests Until Further Notice, Due To Coronavirus Concerns

from the and-it's-not-even-going-to-respond-to-those dept

With the Coronavirus grinding everything to a halt (except for stock market losses! [sobs in 401(k)]), it’s understandable that public services would be affected as well. The unexpected shift to telecommuting means everything is going to slow down as public and private entities figure out how to still serve customers/citizens while still keeping the spread of the virus to a minimum.

But none of that explains this completely incomprehensible response from the FBI, which appears to be using the virus as a way to become even more tight-fisted with its stash of FOIA-able files. “FOIA terrorist” Jason Leopold reports the FBI is seeking to serve the public in the worst way possible during this national health crisis.

A message posted on the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act website Tuesday says:

“Due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, the FBI is not accepting electronic Freedom of Information/Privacy Act requests or sending out electronic responses through the eFOIPA portal at this time. You may still submit a FOIPA request via standard mail. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding.”

Left unexplained by the agency is how sending out snail mail — which could conceivably carry a bit of COVID with it — is preferable to email requests, which can only infect others if they insist on opening sketchy attachments.

This is also against the law, unless the administration decides it’s going to suspend FOIA law until the it’s declared safe to act sane again. The regulations governing FOIA responses say all federal agencies must have the capability to “receive requests electronically” either via email or their FOIA portals. It appears the FBI has simply chosen to ignore its online portal and its capability to receive emailed requests.

Even if lower staffing levels might result in slower responses, the agency’s virus response shouldn’t be to switch off the online portal and direct everyone to another government service that itself might be negatively affected by the virus in the near future.

But there’s more to it than this inexplicable explanation for shutting down the internet-friendly side of its FOIA services. Those bothering to send snail mail shouldn’t expect responses, either.

Katie Townsend, the legal director for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, told BuzzFeed News that in a FOIA case she is litigating, an assistant US attorney filed court papers Tuesday saying the office that handles the FBI’s FOIA requests is “closed at least until March 30, 2020 because of the current coronavirus outbreak.”

This has been confirmed by other attorneys involved in FOIA litigation with the FBI. The regulation-dodging statement on the FBI’s website doesn’t inform requesters that the FBI won’t be touching any requests for the rest of the month. The FBI — through its lawyers — insists this all very logical because FOIA response personnel can’t work from home due to security issues. Even if so, encouraging people to climb into an FOIA time machine to take them back before the internet was a thing isn’t helping anyone but an agency that would rather not answer FOIA requests at all.

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Comments on “FBI Says It Will Only Accept Snail Mail FOIA Requests Until Further Notice, Due To Coronavirus Concerns”

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29 Comments
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That One Guy (profile) says:

... no, that is most certainly not rain FBI

‘For safety reasons we’ll only accept FOIA request in the slowest possible format available, one that requires physical interaction with the request and people to be in the office with others in order to process them.’

They aren’t even trying to hide their contempt for the whole process. At this point, assuming they have anyone honest enough to tell the truth they should just tell people ‘don’t bother sending FOIA requests in, we won’t answer them unless we absolutely have to(read: you sue us), and we’ll drag our feet even then.’

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ryuugami says:

Re: ... no, that is most certainly not rain FBI

one that requires physical interaction with the request

Don’t forget that to send it, you almost certainly have to go to the post office. In the middle of a pandemic, defying the public health orders/advisories, with all the quarantine-ignoring risks that entails. And interact with the (high-risk) staff there.

I think this is FBI’s way of saying "I hope you catch COVID and die" to all of the FOIA requesters.

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Pfaall says:

Re: Non-story?

If they have limited personnel to handle either incoming email or snail mail. their limited personnel will find a backlog of emails far easier to handle than bushels of unsorted paper with the same information.

Their logic is so incredibly wrong that it’s hard not attribute it to evil intent rather than ignorance.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: No, no it is not

In response to a global pandemic they took an already adversarial and burdensome process and went out of their way to make it even worse, and in a way that actually contradicts their excuse for doing so by putting more people at risk.

No, that is very much not a ‘non-story’.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No, no it is not

The problem is not that they don’t process requests. This is expected and understandable. The problem is that they are doing the exact opposite of what anyone can see is the most obvious temporary solution.
With electronic requests, the backlog could be managed easier and better when they get back. It is more sanitary and could get automatically sorted into categories, when they did resume requests. Besides that, it is more likely not to get "lost" or damaged.
Instead the chose to keep open, the most cumbersome method for all parties involved.
If you want to know why maliciousness, and not just stupidity, is ascribed to this, all you need to do is look at their history. Time and time again they have tried to subvert democracy in small and big ways while claiming that they are doing their "best" to be oh so transparent and open.
I just don’t see any possible way that snail-mail could be a benefit compared to electronic requests in this case and the explanation is not sufficient.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 No, no it is not

It seems pretty clear the OP has already made of their mind. Their own arguments don’t make much sense.

If it’s not obvious that COVID-19 could be transmitted via a physical object, but not an electronic one: then clearly sane communication is impossible. They either lack a basic understand of the context at hand, or are arguing in bad faith.

Perhaps they just want to be dismissive of TD?

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ROGueS says:

Re: Re: Re: No, no it is not

Well, you might not be Feebie fan, but you sure do talk like a useful idiot for their agenda.

re:they would have said [it]

Is that your stance on the Iphone too, or CVE stalking?-that if the FBI really wanted to undermine encryption, or go full KKK on targeted perpetual suspects, they would "just come out and say it?"

Daft, much?

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bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: No, no it is not

First of all, I don’t see why only “big” stories should be reported on.

Second, and more importantly, government agencies are notorious for making up (often transparent) excuses for not complying with and/or delaying responses to FOIA requests and for making the process as unnecessarily convoluted, expensive, annoying, and/or slow as possible. They rarely come out and directly say that’s what they’re doing or why, but it is.

Plus, the alleged reasoning makes no sense at all. Managing and receiving electronic requests can be easily done without creating additional risks of spreading COVID-19, while contamination via snail mail and other physical documents cannot be mitigated as effectively. Quite frankly, even if they weren’t doing this to stymie FOIA requesters, that wouldn’t really make them look much better. Honestly, saying that they wouldn’t accept FOIA requests at all during the current crisis would have made more sense than what they’re actually doing.

Really, the question is whether they’re “evil” (I prefer to think of it as selfish or amoral) and at least somewhat (possibly dangerously) incompetent or just ridiculously and dangerously incompetent but not with ill intent. Take your pick.

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David says:

Now that's good thinking!

"Due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, the FBI is not accepting electronic Freedom of Information/Privacy Act requests or sending out electronic responses through the eFOIPA portal at this time. You may still submit a FOIPA request via standard mail. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding."

Can you imagine a more ingenious response to the shortage of toilet paper? They weren’t going to respond anyway, but that way you get to serve your government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Don’t like your 401(k) sinking? It gets worse.

We’re going to have to bail out THE ENTIRE WORLD. The financial system as you know it has ceased to exist.

If you spend a lot of money you are too expensive to save and shouldn’t be saved. What you and all your rich friends will have to do is start over with a basic income like everyone else, and compete fairly to become wealthy again. No one is going to bail out someone with a $2k/month mortgage instead it will be go rent a room or whatever and cut costs. Whoever spends the least now is the new rich.

Enjoy the future.

reticulator (profile) says:

the FBI just wants to be special, eh?

As the notice below from the Social Security Administration shows, others in government are also (shall we say?) deprioritizing FOIA response.

It’s pretty obvious, though, that the FBI approach is worthy of its DNA. Note that SSA doesn’t say the won’t accept requests as usual, only that they won’t process them "during the pandemic" (this phrase in the heading is softened by "until further notice" in the notice itself).

What workloads is SSA not doing during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Created: March 18, 2020

We have suspended the following workloads until further notice:

  • We will not start or complete any current medical continuing disability reviews. If you have a – medical continuing disability review pending, please do not request medical information from your doctors at this time. We will follow up with you for any medical evidence once the COVID-19 public health emergency subsides.
  • Where possible, we are suspending our processing and collection of overpayments.
  • We are not conducting organization or individual representative payee accountings.
  • We will not be able to process a third party requests for information, except from appointed representatives and representative payees
  • We will not process any Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. [emphasis added]

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