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For Immediate Release:
14 March 2003, 8:30 AM

For more information contact:
Thomas Blanton: 202/994-7000


"Drastic" Change or
"More Thunder Than Lightning"?

The National Security Archive
Freedom of Information Act Audit



Requests to 35 agencies handling 97% of FOIA load reveal system in disarray,
Inaccurate contact info, lost requests, long lag times, and lack of oversight.


WASHINGTON, D.C., 14 MARCH 2003 - The National Security Archive at George Washington University today released results from the first-ever government-wide audit of federal responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The audit shows dramatic variations in agency reactions to the restrictive FOIA guidance issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft in October 2001.

Some agencies concluded the Ashcroft memo represented a "drastic" and "fundamental" change; others saw no change or said "Yeah. OK" when asked about impact. Most agencies (17 out of 33) just forwarded copies of the memo to FOIA officers without changing regulations, guidance or training materials; and one summarized the prevailing feeling as "more thunder than lightning."

The FOIA audit is a methodology pioneered by state and local journalism groups that file simultaneous requests with multiple government offices, then compile the results to identify best and worst practices. The Archive's audit included the 25 federal agencies with the largest FOIA caseloads, plus 10 other high-profile agencies. In September 2002, the Archive filed a FOIA request by fax with each of the 35 agencies asking for records relating to the October 2001 Ashcroft memo, specifically for any changes in agency guidance, regulations, or training materials on FOIA resulting from the Ashcroft memo. Only 11 of the agencies responded in the 20-day period provided by statute; 2 are still pending; and 3 agencies lost the requests. The Archive followed up with interviews of agency officials, especially where the response was "no records."

The process of filing successful requests at 35 agencies revealed a federal FOIA system in extreme disarray. Agency contact information on the web was often inaccurate; response times largely failed to meet the statutory standard; only a few agencies performed thorough searches including e-mail and meeting notes; and the lack of central accountability at the agencies resulted in lost requests and inability to track progress.

The Archive posted today on its web site, www.nsarchive.org, the complete correspondence, documents produced, and detailed agency-by-agency Audit report (titled "The Ashcroft Memo: "Drastic" Change or "More Thunder than Lightning"?), and made the lead presentation at the annual Freedom of Information Day conference hosted by the Freedom Forum. Authors of the Audit include the Archive's general counsel, Meredith Fuchs; the director of the Archive's Freedom of Information Project, Will Ferroggiaro; and Archive research associate Barbara Elias; along with Archive executive director Thomas Blanton. Funding for the Audit was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Still underway is the second phase of the Archive's FOIA Audit, measuring agency responses to the March 2002 White House memo on weapons of mass destruction and sensitive but unclassified information. Preliminary results indicate that this memo seems to have generated more agency action than the Ashcroft memo did. Also underway is a third phase seeking to measure agency backlogs by asking for the ten oldest pending requests.

"The Freedom of Information Act is one of the glories of American democracy and an inspiration for open government advocates around the world," commented Archive director Thomas Blanton. "But the administrative system that makes FOIA a reality is in grave disrepair, plagued with delays, and byzantine in its complexity for the ordinary requester; and Attorney General Ashcroft seems only to have thrown sand in the gears."

Go to the FOIA Audit


About the National Security ArchiveArchive NewsDeclassified Documents OnlineArchive ProjectsArchive PublicationsFreedom of Information ActInternship OpportunitiesGuide for Researchers