It took the Department of Homeland Security Headquarters Division just nine business days to provide data in response to a simple Freedom of Information Act request sent to it and 20 other federal agencies.
The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division came through a day later; two days after that, we received data from Justice’s Management Division. Soon, the records from the Fish & Wildlife Service arrived, then the Army, and then the Bureau of Land Management. Earlier this week, data arrived from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Now 65 business days after the FOIA requests were sent to the 21 agencies, only those seven have furnished complete and usable records in response. Several others have made good-faith efforts to comply and appear to be working toward providing data.
Ten agencies have either failed to respond at all, have become unresponsive at some point in the process, or, in the case of the CIA, have outright denied the request.
Among those who have failed to comply: The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, the federal entity that, according to its own website, is “responsible for encouraging agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).”
The Central Intelligence Agency says that the fifth and final volume of a multi-volume history of the agency’s role in the Bay of Pigs Operation is not part of the Official History of the Bay of Pigs sought by the National Security Archive. It notes that two district court judges and an appellate court panel have agreed with the agency’s stance that Volume 5 is predecisional and part of the agency’s deliberative process. Therefore, it is properly exempt from disclosure under FOIA’s B5 Exemption.
The Archive nominated its battle with the CIA to get this multi-volume history for the FOIA Project’s FOIA Failure contest. The FOIA Project asked the Archive and five others who have brought multiple FOIA suits against the government to select a suit they felt represents a particularly egregious example of a failure to adequately comply with a FOIA request. The FOIA Project then asked the public to vote on the “worst of the worst” during Sunshine Week. The voting closed Friday morning (3/20/2015). The Archive’s case against the CIA was voted the winner, with 68 of 264 votes, one vote ahead of the second-place finisher, a case involving official assessments of the damage caused by the Edward Snowden leaks.
On Friday evening, at the request of the FOIA Project, CIA spokesperson Ryan Trapani provided this statement via e-mail:
But it wasn’t until 2011, when the Archive filed a lawsuit against the CIA on the eve of 50th anniversary of the botched invasion, that it received any documents. As the case slowly made its way through the courts, the CIA gradually relented on releasing various aspects of this multi-volume text.
The agency, however, steadfastly refused to release Volume 5, contending that the half-century old work was a draft and part of its internal deliberations, and therefore exempt from FOIA. The CIA also contended that release of the document wouldn’t serve history well, and would confuse the American public rather than enlighten it.
Biggest FOIA Fail?
Democracy depends on educated citizens who know what their government is doing. The Freedom of Information Act is the federal law that empowers citizens to get information about the government, from the government. Yet many agencies routinely ignore the law, and FOIA requests often fall into a bureaucratic black hole.
Every year, several hundred frustrated requesters sue in federal court for the documents they have been blocked from receiving. We’ve asked six prominent journalists, open government advocates, and lawyers to highlight the FOIA failure they feel represents the most egregious example of improper withholding under FOIA.
Now we want you to vote on the worst of the worst!
We closed voting at 10 this morning (3/20/15). The vote counts reflected in the poll at right are the final counts. They include votes left on a companion poll by Android users who had trouble with the one on this page. We’ll be posting more on the results soon.