|Embargoed for release Monday, November 17, 2003
For more information: Meredith Fuchs/Thomas Blanton 202/994-7000
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUESTS DATE TO 1980s;
AUDIT LOCATES "10 OLDEST" REQUESTS AT U.S. AGENCIES;
TO CONGRESS HIDE REAL DELAYS IN SYSTEM
Washington D.C., November 17, 2003 - The oldest
Freedom of Information requests that are still pending
in the U.S. government date back to the late 1980s, before
the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to the
Freedom of Information Act Audit released today
by George Washington University's National Security Archive.
The oldest still-pending request is a 1987 inquiry from
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld
on FBI activities at the University of California at Berkeley.
Rosenfeld's requests and legal action under the Freedom
of Information Act have resulted in the release of over
200,000 pages of FBI records and a series of award-winning
investigative reports on government surveillance in the
A graduate student at the University of Southern California
filed the second oldest still-pending request in 1989,
asking the Defense Department for records on the U.S.
"freedom of navigation" program. So much time
has elapsed that the requester, William Aceves, is now
a full professor at California Western School of Law.
Other oldest outstanding requests dating to the 1980s
came 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 asking
for copies of the "10 oldest open or pending"
FOIA requests at each of the 35 federal agencies that
together handle more than 97% of all FOIA requests. Six
agencies still have not responded in full, more than ten
months later and despite repeated phone contacts, including
the Department of Veterans' Affairs, which claims in its
FY2002 annual report to Congress some of the shortest
median response times to FOIA requests of any agency:
4-to-24 days. The Freedom of Information Act itself, as
amended in 1996, gives agencies 20 working days to respond
to FOIA requests.
As the VA example shows, the annual reports actually
hide the true extent of the delay problem. The median
processing times that are reported give no sense of the
outer limits (represented by the oldest requests) or even
the average time a FOIA requester can expect to wait.
Moreover, the median times reported to Congress do not
include the delays from referrals or wrangling over fees,
which can add months to the process and generate more
administrative paper than is produced by the ultimate
"At the very least, our Audit has focused agencies'
attention on their ancient requests," said Meredith
Fuchs, the Archive's general counsel. "For instance,
the CIA has now answered one of the Archive's oldest requests
and hopefully other agencies also will clear up these
extraordinary backlogs. But the Audit raises the larger
question of how we can improve the FOIA when the primary
oversight tool available, the annual reports to Congress,
are so flawed, and the agencies themselves are often so
decentralized that it is very difficult for them to ensure
that no FOIA request is left behind."
The Freedom of Information Audit, titled "Justice
Delayed Is Justice Denied: The 10 Oldest FOIA Requests,"
is online at www.nsarchive.org.
This Freedom of Information Audit was made possible by
the generous funding of the John S. and James L. Knight
Foundation and the HKH Foundation.