Report Says Customs And Border Protection Shoved 12,000 Unanswered FOIA Requests Into Boxes And Forgot About Them

from the your-tax-dollars-hardly-working dept

The Government Accountability Office has taken a look at the DHS and its handling of FOIA requests, and it doesn't like what it sees. There are plenty of numbers in the report but the most incredible number is this: 23,000 FOIA requests mishandled by a single agency under the DHS's control. [pdf link]

Nonetheless, CBP experienced a large increase in the number of its backlogged requests from fiscal year 2011 through fiscal year 2013—from 4,356 requests to 37,848 requests. According to CBP officials, two problems, in particular, contributed to the higher numbers. First, approximately 11,000 FOIA cases that were improperly closed in 2012 had to be reopened and reprocessed. Second, after its reorganization, a new manager found a stack of boxes containing 12,000 paper requests from 2012 that had never been entered into their processing system. The officials stated that CBP subsequently cleared all of these requests.
Unfortunately, the report doesn't contain any further details on how these events occurred. The preceding paragraph notes that the CBP has taken steps (hiring/training additional staff, extending agreement with USCIS to handle FOIA processing) to tackle its backlog of requests, but there's nothing explaining how 11,000 requests were "improperly closed" or how 12,000 requests managed to bypass the FOIA system completely, only to reappear in a stack of boxes located elsewhere.

Part of the problem seems to be the DHS itself. The agency is supposed to be fixing its lousy FOIA response system, which includes every agency under its oversight. But the DHS is too big to do the job properly. When it was formed in 2003, the DHS assumed control of 22 agencies and offices as well as absorbed 209,000 federal employees. By 2014, this had grown to 28 agencies and offices.

The GAO pointed out serious flaws in the agency's FOIA processes since 2008, along with handing down several recommendations. Most of that has been ignored or implemented badly. (Pretty much par for the course for an agency another GAO report bluntly stated "had no project management skills.") For the most part, the "solution" has been to throw warm bodies at the request backlog. In a better system, this might have worked. But the DHS's underling agencies seem to all have different ideas as to what tracking and response system works best, resulting in a snarled "network" of responders that creates more problems than it solves.
Responsibility for processing FOIA requests is decentralized among DHS’s Privacy Office and component agencies...In addition, each of the selected components has its own program and procedures for processing, tracking, and reporting FOIA activities... Further, while the selected components report their FOIA processing costs to the Privacy Office, which then aggregates this data, these reported costs are incomplete, thus hindering accountability for the total costs incurred by the department and the components in managing and processing FOIA requests. Also, duplication exists in the processing of certain requests for immigrant files that are handled by two of the selected components.
This table highlights part of the problem:


Only half of the six agencies are using the same system. ICE is using FileMaker Pro in addition to using FOIAXpress, partially nullifying the interconnectedness of the system it shares with two other agencies. The Coast Guard is using nothing more than off-the-shelf Excel to handle its FOIA requests.

Because of the disparate methods and lack of interagency connectivity, the GAO notes that it is unable to provide a completely accurate picture of the DHS's FOIA processes, both in terms of backlogs and costs incurred.
Due to the non-reporting of particular cost categories and concerns about the accuracy of certain reported cost data, including data with obvious errors and inconsistent accounts of how data were collected, we concluded that, overall, the cost data provided were not sufficiently reliable, based on federal management cost accounting standards, to determine DHS’s total FOIA costs, but that our analysis allowed us to conclude that overall costs were underreported...

In examining reported data on the volumes of FOIA requests made to DHS, we found two data reliability issues of concern. First, we found that a FOIA request may be recorded and counted more than once… Similarly, a request sent to more than one component may be entered separately by each component that responds. Nonetheless, while this double counting may result in an inaccurate number of total requests received by DHS, it did not affect our findings, since we have no findings related to the overall volume of requests handled by DHS.
When it's all said and done, the DHS accounts for nearly half of the government's 95,000-request backlog. Part of it is due to its size, which encompasses some agencies (CBP, ICE) many Americans are seeking more and more information from. But the rest of it is on the DHS itself, which has been informed of its deficiencies since 2008, but has made very little forward progress.

Filed Under: cbp, customs and border patrol, dhs, foia


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 1:44pm

    Too Big

    "But the DHS is too big to do the job properly."

    More like too big to really care.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Trevor, 21 Nov 2014 @ 1:58pm

    Here's an idea:

    What if the government built a large energy and water consuming structure in a Midwestern State with a lot of open space, that holds a digital copy of every document, email, and text generated by government employees.

    When a FOIA request is made, the document is considered by the originating agency, and if the depository does not have an answer by a certain deadline, the document is released with no redactions.

    But this is crazy. What kind of government would build a large depository of information in the middle of no where that uses ungodly amounts of electricity and water to operate? It would be too tempting for people to try to breach!

    /tinfoilhat

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    toyotabedzrock (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 2:24pm

    So let me take a guess that FOIAOnline was made by the people who where originally hired to create the federal Health Insurance Exchange site?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 9:49am

      Re:

      So let me take a guess that FOIAOnline was made by the people who where originally hired ...

      Why is this story starting to sound like a H2G2 sequel?

      By the way Coast Guard, did you know there's a perl module specifically designed to handle CSV files?

      You're most welcome. Have a lovely day.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 2:24pm

    Here's an idea: If the information able to be made public, make it all public. Put everything online and let people search it themselves.

    Why do we have to request public information?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 9:53am

      Re:

      Why do we have to request public information?

      It's secret. If terrorists/paedos/drug dealers learned of it, civilization as we know it would collapse.

      Didn't you get the memo?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DCL, 21 Nov 2014 @ 2:57pm

    Silver lining

    I find it surprising CHB/DHS didn't charge the requester fees for storing the boxes. Clearly the requests were too unreasonable to fulfill in a timely manner.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 9:58am

      Re: Silver lining

      I'm surprised they still have them at all. I'd expect them to have found their way into a shredder dumpster combo years ago.

      It's almost like *somebody* in DHS has a clue. Or, I suppose it could just be inertia in action.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    David Warman, 21 Nov 2014 @ 3:39pm

    ancient software

    FileMaker Pro? Really? 20+ year old commercial package that only runs on pre-OS-X Apple 68K Operating Systems? Described as "Custom". That's a bit disconcerting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 21 Nov 2014 @ 3:55pm

    IOW, the DHS is failing at it's one and only task: The integration of other agencies. Surprise.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 21 Nov 2014 @ 4:36pm

    Hey Tim I found a typo in that first sentence. This is how the correct sentence should read:
    The Government Accountability Office has taken a look at the DHS...and it doesn't like what it sees.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 10:13am

      Re:

      The Government Accountability Office has taken a look at the DHS ...

      The Government Accountability Office has taken yet another look at the DHS ...

      It's fourteen (14) years old! I smell a conspiracy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Nov 2014 @ 4:20am

    Dont worry folks, im sure they'll realise how much time and effort and money foia's are costing, and scrap it and the accountability and transparency that comes with it in order to save the "tax" payer some money.......so, dont frett

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 7:36am

    Pardon?

    But the DHS is too big to do the job properly.

    It's early, and I may not have all my critical faculties working yet, but that statement appears to ignore every universal law I can think of.

    How small should it be to be able to do it properly?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      tqk (profile), 22 Nov 2014 @ 9:40am

      Re: Pardon?

      But the rest of it is on the DHS itself, which has been informed of its deficiencies since 2008, but has made very little forward progress.

      Let me do the "math" on that. 2008, 09, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14.

      They've "managed"[*] "very little forward progress" in seven (7) years. DHS already existed for ca. 7 years before this situation was noticed.

      In other news, there actually exists a "Government Accountability Office!" Who knew? Well, I knew, and I've been a long time fan. However, I've often wondered if Congress knows.

      To sum up, Clusterfsck: what DHS does best! A *professionally* mis-managed agency. Your tax dollars at work! Hoorah!

      This story goes a long way towards explaining James Comey.


      * "Pretty much par for the course for an agency another GAO report bluntly stated "had no project management skills.""[**]

      ** Does GAO provide agencies a copy of its reports?[***]

      *** Who is GAO accountable to, I wonder? That's probably Congress. So, Congress must already know about this. They may have known about it for seven (or is it fourteen?) years.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    HeartStents4All, 22 Nov 2014 @ 3:15pm

    At some point Why Bother?

    At some point why even bother?

    What difference does it make.
    Silence is golden.
    Loose lips sink ships.
    The Golden Rule.

    They are protecting the Constitution and Bill of Rights against the 320 Million Idiot Domestic Terrorists. plus the 5 Million Cesearos nuevos democratos
    Regulating the monetary system. meh.
    They're regulating to Keep our firearms safe.
    Taxin to fix fukushima, and the enviornment.
    Water rights for nestle.

    The friendly Microphone and Camera have been replaced by Gas, and firearms and bloody noses.

    Just remember we are a bunch of ants on a ball of dirt spiralling through the galaxy. You get ONE SHOT to get this crap right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Just Another Anonymous Troll, 24 Nov 2014 @ 10:51am

    Forgot? Bah! An agency or department with so much manpower simply cannot forget 12,000 FOIA requests!
    It was clearly intentional.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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