from the can-unfulfilled-FOIA-requests-be-passed-on-to-next-of-kin? dept
The Freedom of Information Act is a key element of maintaining government transparency... in theory. In practice, however, those on the receiving end of these requests do everything in their power (and some things lying outside their power) to endlessly delay their responses, or simply hand over page after fully redacted page of "information." Most frequently, both tactics are deployed -- lengthy delays and wholesale redactions -- in order to give the requester something useless long after it's ceased to be relevant.
Here's two more following this same pattern. The first, a FOIA request about Google's 2007 complaint against Windows Vista search interference, has finally been released by the Department of Justice (via). The information, what there is of it, took the scenic route on its way to requester Thomas Claburn's hands.
In June 2007, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to learn more about the basis for Google's complaint that Microsoft's implementation of desktop search in Windows Vista violated the terms of its 2002 antitrust consent agreement.Six years total, including a year-and-a-half passing between the point the government cashed Claburn's check and when the documents actually arrived. Better late than never, as they say. Or would say, if any of the information obtained was of any use whatsoever.
In September 2011, I was notified that material relevant to my request would be provided, with a $15 fee to cover copying costs. I sent the check the following month and it was cashed in November 2011. It then took more than a year of hectoring the Department of Justice and the intercession of the Office of Government Information Services to actually get the "responsive materials." The documents arrived in late March.
After six years, the truth can finally be told. What follows is an excerpt from an email sent by Kulpreet Rana, Google's director of intellectual property, to Justice Department attorney Aaron Hoag, dated Oct. 4, 2006.As Claburn states, this isn't information, it's "routing data." In addition, the DOJ withheld 406 other pages of relevant documents completely. Whatever wasn't useless routing data for fully redacted email conversations was stuff anyone could have obtained without a FOIA request.
Thanking Hoag for taking the time to meet the previous week, Rana wrote, "During that meeting, you raised a few questions that we wanted to follow-up on. Rather than waiting to get all of the answers, I wanted to get back to you on some of the more pressing issues...probably the most important of which is REDACTED."
This goes on for an entire page. It's a gray box of nothing.
The dozens of email messages provided in response to my FOIA request look just like this: Page after page of gray where text should be. Only the email addresses, the signatures and the legal and social boilerplate have been left intact.
The pages that the Justice Department saw fit to release include news articles from the New York Times, Reuters and other publications about Google's complaint. The entirety of the "responsive material" either has been available to anyone with an Internet connection for years or consists of names, salutations, thank yous and nothing else.This sort of stonewalling and overenthusiastic redaction makes a mockery of the FOIA process. It would appear that many government entities would rather be sued into compliance, seeing as they have an unlimited amount of funds to fight the battle, whereas no plaintiff has that luxury.
Claburn's story is ugly but the next one is even uglier (via).
The conservative government accountability organization Judicial Watch recently received an official response letter to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request the group submitted in September 2002 — nearly 11 years ago.Judicial Watch didn't even receive heavily-redacted "information." It received an "official response letter." That's it.
“It’s quite common for federal agencies as well as the White House to flip the finger at FOIA requests that could expose wrongdoing or shed a negative light,” Judicial Watch wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “In fact, JW often must file lawsuits to get ‘public’ records that should not require litigation to obtain. In this particular case, it took the DIA and NSA a whopping 11 years to determine that the information falls under the ‘release authority’ of a different agency—the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).”Judicial Watch will have to keep waiting. The letter from the NCIS claims it only received the request on March 21, 2013, meaning the DIA and NSA spent more than a decade deciding to kick the can down the road. The NCIS can't honestly be blamed for making the otherwise laughable statement that it will be unable to comply "within 20 days" and invoking the ten working day extension provision. Apparently, the DIA and NSA can't even be bothered to apologize for exceeding the deadline by over a decade.
Judicial Watch says it doesn't normally publish response letters, but considering the circumstances surround this particular request, it apparently felt it couldn't let the letter pass without comment.
If government agencies are going to treat the FOIA this way, could they at least get to the point in a more timely fashion? I mean, if you're just going to redact a majority of the information or play a decade-long game of keepaway, at least be upfront about it. A response letter received within 20 days that states nothing more than, "Screw you. Come back with a lawyer," would certainly be preferable to the current time frames. At least, people will know where they're headed next if they really want the requested information.