Saturday, March 28, 2009

FBI = Foot-dragging on Bureau Information

The FBI was tweaked last week for its notorious lack of responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. A small part of the problem is the Bureau's Famous Backwardness at Information handling, but mostly it's a matter of contempt for the law.

From the National Security Archive's fifth annual Rosemary Award press release:

National Security Archive Cites FBI for Record-Setting "No Records" Responses, FBI Can't Find Records 66% of the Time (Rest of Government Averages 13%)

Washington, DC, March 13, 2009

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) today won the fifth annual Rosemary Award for the worst Freedom of Information Act performance by a federal agency. The FBI’s reports to Congress show that the Bureau is unable to find any records in response to two-thirds of its incoming FOIA requests on average over the past four ears, when the other major government agencies averaged only a 13% “no records” response to public requests.

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[U]nless a requester specifically asks for a broader search, the FBI will only look in a central database of electronic file names at FBI headquarters in Washington. This search will miss any internal or cross-references to people who are not the subject of an investigation, any records stored at other FBI offices around the country, and any records created before the 1970s, which are stored in paper form and only indexed using a manual card catalog. When requesters send their requests directly to relevant field offices for processing, the FBI’s policy is to automatically route all requests back to headquarters for the same inadequate search. Until the requester files suit in federal court, the FBI will not perform a broader search.

“Modern information processing uses search algorithms and full-text retrieval to find and rank search results,” said Blanton. “The FBI’s process in contrast is designed to send FOIA requesters away frustrated, and no doubt has the same effect on the FBI’s own agents.”

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According to the FBI’s own reporting, the Bureau has also deterred requesters by making them wait — an average of 374 days (about a year) for complex requests, compared with the 20 days mandated in the FOIA. The FBI also has a longstanding practice of refusing to process requests for documents about a living individual without a signed privacy waiver from the person permitting the release of his or her records. Last year, this policy stopped in its tracks a student journalism project to learn about the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan — the FBI would not process their requests because they did not submit privacy waivers signed by captured 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid, among others.

So what new? FOIA is merely a public law, but the FBI is a law unto itself.

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