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"[I]n the FOIA context,  the statutory goals--efficient,
prompt, and full disclosure of information-can be
frustrated by agency actions that operate to delay the ultimate
resolution of the disclosure request."
-- Senate of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico v. United
States Dept. of Justice, 823 F.2d 574, 580 (D.C. Cir.
When Congress passed the 1996 Amendments to the Freedom of Information
Act, it intended to improve agency administration of FOIA obligations.
Congress at the same time imposed new detailed reporting requirements
on the agencies to enable effective oversight over FOIA compliance.
Yet the National Security Archive FOIA Audit demonstrates that
FOIA processing backlogs persist - despite many agencies experiencing
the hoped-for reductions in the number of FOIA requests submitted
- and the annual FOIA reports submitted by the agencies to the
Department of Justice fail to identify the extent of the delays
The oldest Freedom of Information Act requests that are still
pending in the federal government date back to the late 1980s,
before the collapse of the Soviet Union. A then-graduate student
at the University of Southern California filed one of the oldest
still-pending requests in 1989, asking the Defense Department
for records on the U.S. "freedom of Navigation" program.
He is a full professor now and is still interested in the records.
Other oldest requests dating to the 1980s came from San Francisco
Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld, from the Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Intelligencer Journal newspaper, from The Nation
magazine, from ABC News, and from the National Security Archive,
In January 2003, the Archive filed FOIA requests with 35 federal
agencies asking for copies of their "ten oldest open or pending
Freedom of Information Act requests currently being processed
or held pending coordination with other agencies." Six agencies
still have not responded in full, more than ten months later and
despite repeated telephone and written contacts, including the
Department of Veterans Affairs, which claims some of the shortest
response times of any agency (4-24 days reported in its FY 2002
annual report). Other non-responders include the Department of
Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Labor, the Department
of State, the Department of Transportation, and the Drug Enforcement
Even many of those agencies that did respond are so decentralized
that they cannot actually identify their oldest pending requests,
much less know whether the requests have been fulfilled. In many
cases, the referral of FOIA requests to components and other agencies
for processing or consultation is largely unmonitored, with agencies
unable to press for completion of processing.
The Freedom of Information Act gives agencies 20 working days
to respond to FOIA requests, with an additional 10-day extension
available for "unusual circumstances." The FY 2002 annual
FOIA reports to Congress claim median processing times ranging
from a low of 2 business days at the Small Business Administration
to ranges with a high of 905 business days at the Department of
Agriculture and a high of 1113 business days at the Environmental
These reported statistics, however, mask the true extent of the
FOIA backlog problem, which in some cases leaves FOIA requesters
waiting for over a decade for substantive responses to FOIA requests.
The median processing time statistics provide no means of assessing
the outer limits (represented by the oldest requests) or average
length of an agency's backlog, both of which are critical to understanding
how long a FOIA requester may have to wait for a substantive response.
Moreover, the median times reported to Congress do not include
the delays associated with referrals or wrangling over fees, which
can add months or years to the process, all the while generating
more administrative paper than is produced by the ultimate substantive
The Archive recommends changes in the annual FOIA reports and
the functioning of the interagency referral and consultation system.
The Archive also recommends that agencies improve the quality
of communications with requesters so that the ordinary FOIA requester
has the information needed to help facilitate processing of requests
and to rescue requests that have been left behind.
This Freedom of Information Audit was made possible by the generous
funding of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the