Failures

by Tim Cushing


Filed Under:
complex, delays, fbi, foia



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.


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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Jan 2017 @ 2:35am

    Law? What law, we're the FBI, we do what we want

    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.

    So even when they superficially 'comply' with the law they still ignore any limits on it. Always delightful to see how much the agencies of the government care about the laws when they're not using them against the public.

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

  2. identicon
    Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously, 24 Jan 2017 @ 3:56am

    Other news

    In unrelated news, the FBI announced a revised math-requirement for new employees.
    They are now required to be able to count up to 50 (previously 950).

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

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2017 @ 5:09am

    Must be those pesky Russians up to their old tricks again.

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

  4. icon
    Ninja (profile), 24 Jan 2017 @ 5:47am

    Oh, the complex murder cases we solve - those which involve more than 1 victim - take an average of forever to be solved but fear not, the simple cases take only life plus 70 years (because why not?) so we are awesome law enforcement!

    Ahem. Of course when trying to secure a conviction then even the most complex cases will be dealt with swiftly.

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

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2017 @ 6:10am

    Isn't not complying with the statute kind of illegal?

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

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2017 @ 6:23am

    Re:

    Alternate illegal

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

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Jan 2017 @ 8:07am

    Re:

    > Isn't not complying with the statute kind of illegal?

    It depends on what reality universe you're in.

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

  8. icon
    nasch (profile), 24 Jan 2017 @ 11:30am

    Re:

    I suppose the justice department has less than no interest in prosecuting themselves, and Congress apparently doesn't care to exercise oversight on this, so nothing is done.

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

  9. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 24 Jan 2017 @ 4:43pm

    Re:

    Silly peon, breaking the laws is only a crime when you don't have power and/or connections. For an agency with both like the FBI nothing is illegal, because who's going to bring them up on charges?

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

  10. identicon
    stine, 24 Jan 2017 @ 7:44pm

    ok?

    So just ask for the first 45 pages of responsive documents?

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


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