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Saturday, August 20, 2005

Federal Data Show Individuals Most Often Use FOIA; Response Delays Up 15 Percent in 2004; DOD Fastest On Expedited Processing Requests

The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government collected 25 reports by major federal departments and agencies to Congress and the Department of Justice for 2004 and found the vast majority of Freedom of Information Act requestors are private individuals.

Journalists account for a miniscule proportion of the record more than 4 million FOIA requests submitted to federal agencies last year, according to the CJOG study. The Defense Department answers requests for expedited processing on average in only onde day, which is much faster than other federal agencies.

The study also found the government's backlog of FOIA requests waiting to be processed increased 15 percent. The CJOG observed that:

"Most FOI requests are from people seeking personal information from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration. For instance, the Social Security Administration received more than 1.8 million requests from people seeking their own Social Security records."

Such requests are typically processed promptly and thoroughly, according to CJOG. Problems begin when requestors seek information that is not personal. One of three such requests encounter delays, denials or other obstacles to disclosure.

The FOIA provides an administrative appeals process but the CJOG study found that a requester pursuing such an appeal had only a one-in-six chance of getting more of the requested documents. The State Department was most likely to provide additional documents after an appeal (59 percent of the time), while the Justice Department was least likely (six percent).

The CJOG study notes that federal law requires agencies to assess a request for expedited appeal within five days. The Defense Department's media response time for such requests was one day, compared to the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, which had 36 expedited review requests pending for more than 195 working days, or nearly 10 months!

Reported litigation costs by federal agencies reached only $18 million, according to the CJOG study.

I wonder when the journalists who are most often heard complaining about DOD secrecy will get around to saying thank you for the fast processing of their FOIA requests? No, I'm not holding my breath, either.

You can read the complete CJOG study here.