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Survey Results – Improved But Far From Perfect

by FOIA Project Staff on November 2nd, 2015
Report by the Numbers
21 Federal agencies were sent identical quarterly FOIA requests starting last January.
14 Agencies have responded, furnishing usable data.
6 Agencies never responded, or didn’t provide usable data.
1 Agency denied the request; lawsuit filed to compel disclosure.

The returns are in from another round of the ongoing survey by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) that evaluates how well or poorly 21 federal agencies respond to very simple Freedom of Information Act requests.

The requested information provides fuel for the FOIAproject.org interactive tool that allows the comparison of FOIA processing and wait times on a month-by-month, agency-by-agency, and processing track-by-track basis. The latest (fourth) round of TRAC’s quarterly requests provides data updated through the end of September 2015.

Overall, two thirds of the agencies have now provided satisfactory responses to the survey. Unfortunately, after nine months, 7 of the 21 agencies are no-shows, having failed to provide the needed records after four request rounds.

Data are requested quarterly, and TRAC is now finding greater and sometimes amazingly quick responsiveness from a growing number of agencies. In the last round of requests sent out October 13, for example, two agencies provided the data within two days: the Bureau of Land Management and DOJ’s Management Division.

Rather than wait for the next request, one agency — the Navy — has begun proactively producing and posting the case-by-case data on its web site. Another agency, which uses the government’s FOIAOnline website, has put in a request to modify its online tool to allow the public to obtain the data directly.

The specific data involved in TRAC’s ongoing survey of FOIA responsiveness in the seventh year of the Obama Administration could not be simpler. In the latest round, TRAC requested information on the current status of each FOIA request received or pending during July through September 2015, including its tracking number, the processing track assigned (simple, complex, expedited, etc.), the date received and the closing date (if closed). In the survey, TRAC deliberately asked questions about information the law requires each agency to maintain and avoided those that might require redaction or other processing steps that could cause delay.

TRAC’s report on the first round of the survey, covering FOIA matters received from October 2012 through December 2014, can be found here.

The CIA is the only agency that has outright refused to process the request. The agency even denied TRAC the right to an administrative appeal. David Sobel, a lawyer who has long specialized in FOIA matters, filed a pro bono challenge to the agency in the federal district court in the District of Columbia on October 20.

Perhaps a more surprising organization on the list of failed agencies was the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), created by Congress to coordinate and encourage FOIA efforts by the whole government.

Other no-shows were the FBI, the Justice Department’s Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Inadequate initial responses from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the DOJ’s Criminal Division were appealed, and TRAC is awaiting a new response after these were remanded for reprocessing.

The stark failure of the OIP and agencies listed directly above contrasts with the reaction of sister agencies in the department like the DEA, the National Security Division, the Civil Rights Division, the Bureau of Prisons and the Justice Management Division.

The chart below provides details on how each of the 21 federal agencies measured up or fell short in this round of our FOIA Survey.

Satisfactory
Unsatisfactory
Agency Records Released Through Comments
ATF none No response. Only one out of the four quarterly requests belatedly acknowledged.
Army June 30, 2015 Responded July 28 to July 22 (3rd quarter) request; no response yet to October 13 (4th quarter) request.
Bureau of Land Management September 30, 2015 Responded within 2 business days to latest quarterly request.
Bureau of Prisons September 15, 2015 Helpfully provided data through search date (September 15) in responding to 2nd quarter (April 23) request.
CIA none Refused to process requests; lawsuit filed.
Customs and Border Patrol September 30, 2015 1st quarter appealed and remanded; 2nd quarter also appealed; in response to appeal agency has released data current through September 30, 2015 on October 19.
DEA June 30, 2015 Responded September 4 to July 21 (3rd quarter) request; no response yet to 4th quarter.
DHS HQ September 30, 2015 Responded within 7 business days to latest quarterly request
DOJ Civil Rights Division June 30, 2015 Responded July 30 to July 21 (3rd quarter) request; no response yet to October 13 (4th quarter) request.
DOJ EOUSA none No acknowledgement or response on any of four quarterly requests.
DOJ Management Division September 30, 2015 Responded within 2 business days to latest quarterly request.
DOJ Criminal Division Inadequate responses appealed; remanded to do new search; no response yet to remand.
DOJ National Security Division June 30, 2015 Responded August 3 to July 21 (3rd quarter) request; no response yet to October 13 (4th quarter) request.
DOJ Office of Information Policy Data released in response to first request not consistent with published numbers, promised additional info not provided; and no response to remaining 3 quarterly reports.
EPA September 30, 2015 Responded within 2 business days to latest quarterly request.
FBI none No final response; followup letter sent
Fish & Wildlife September 30, 2015 Responded within 4 business days to latest quarterly request.
ICE initial response grossly inadequate; successful appeal remanded; no response to remand.
IRS June 30, 2015 Responded September 15 to all three pending quarterly requests; no response yet to October 13 (4th quarter) request.
Navy September 30, 2015 Agency now proactively preparing and posting requested data quarterly without waiting to receive request.
USCIS June 30, 2015 Responded October 20 to July 21(3rd quarter) request; no response yet to October 13 (4th quarter) request.

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