FOIA

FOIA

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests are ubiquitous in the news. Why does responding to these requests take so much time? Why is the government allowed to delay responding to what should be public information? Many “watchdog” groups and other legitimate news gathering entities need access to communications and reports sent, received and compiled by public agencies. Some of these are FOIA requests are forced to be processed as litigation, essentially forcing private entities to sue government agencies to find out what they said, and did.

Any nobody seems to care.

Congress could fix some of this nonsense, if it had the desire. We the people forget that Congress holds the purse strings to every government department. While many agencies are allocated money (this problem has been discussed on multiple occasions in this blog), before any allocation can occur, it has to be appropriated by Congress. Is it conspiracy theory to suggest the body that holds power over your budget could sway immediate action? It is not theory, or conspiracy, at all. It has been going on since the dawn of time, money can and will be used as leverage.

FOIA requests help shed light on why particular things happened, or didn’t happen. For example, in the case of Dr. Larry Nassar, the doctor for the United States women’s gymnastics team, a FOIA request has been issued (several, I believe) in an attempt to illuminate what the FBI knew, when it knew it, and why it didn’t do anything. As a leading (at least on paper) law enforcement agency in this country, the FBI should be curious as to what happened and why. It should not be permitted, or encouraged in any way, to withhold information about this truly nefarious case. Its leadership should be embarrassed and ashamed, but at the very least it should be candid in its review. Again, Congress could pressure this release, but has not.

Why?

FOIA requests for many cases are equally slow and while few cases disgust me like the Nassar case (the victims told the FBI and it did nothing), many are very important to national policy. The excuses are not new, careful scrutiny must be applied to ensure confidentiality and other safeguards are ensured. This is part of the problem. We have too many secrets. Redaction, personal privacy and a fear of litigation are stifling access to information needed to ascertain problems. These problems may include personnel ineptitude or policy compliance. In other situations, the policy may simply be ineffective or impossible to enforce. In others it may be simple ineptitude, but regardless of the reason, the American people need to understand the problem before solutions can be proposed. The FBI should be vociferous about releasing documents to clarify what went wrong, or right. The American people have a right to know, now, not a year after a FOIA request is issued.

The slow response to FOIA allows obfuscation, forgetfulness and employee turnover to be adroitly arranged. A slow response can allow for internal adjustments to be made so when the damning information is released, it can say it doesn’t do it like that anymore (this fact will be “spun” to suggest it never did it like that – but it obviously did). As people notice FOIA requests, ask the question, what is taking so long and why is it not public information in the first place? What if a citizen watch group had to be copied on each government correspondence (including email, text, etc.). That would certainly make things more transparent, something many presidents have said they would do, but none have come close.

FOIA requests should not be this difficult.

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Categorized as Policy

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