WASHINGTON – Getting information from the government under the Freedom of Information Act can take longer than waiting for ketchup to flow from a new bottle. Much longer.
The act that gave citizens the power to request information from federal government files celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 4. But those seeking data continue to encounter long delays despite a 2005 order by President Bush to clear the unanswered backlog.
A new study released Monday found one requester has been waiting 20 years for the State Department to produce documents it has about the Church of Scientology.
Two more unanswered requests were made in 1988 and three in 1989, according to the survey by the National Security Archive, a private research group at George Washington University.
Five agencies — the State Department, Air Force, CIA, the Justice Department's criminal division and the FBI — still haven't answered some requests made 15 or more years ago, the Archive found.
The Archive is a heavy user of the act and, with aid from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, does periodic audits of how well the law is administered.
The latest study concluded backlogs are "out of control." For most federal agencies, meeting the law's deadline for a response in 20 business days "is an exception rather than a standard practice," the study said.
"Forty years after the law went into effect, we're seeing 20 years of delay," said Archive director Tom Blanton. "This kind of inexcusable delay by federal agencies just keeps us in the dark."
Among the findings from responses by 57 agencies to the Archives' Jan. 29, 2007 FOIA request for data on backlogs:
—Only four agencies reported no backlog: the Small Business Administration, Army Department Materiel Command, Naval Education and Training Command and Labor Department Employee Benefits Security Administration.
—Twelve agencies had requests pending 10 years or more.
—Ten agencies misreported their oldest pending FOIA request to Congress in annual reports required by law: the Agriculture Department Animal and Health Inspection Service, Air Force, Commerce Department, CIA, Director of National Intelligence, FBI, National Science Foundation, State, Treasury, and Justice's Office of Information and Privacy, which is supposed to provide governmentwide guidance on FOIA compliance.
—One-third of the agencies that received the January Archive request on backlogs have not responded. Twelve agencies still have not responded to the Archive's 2005 request for similar data.
"Some agencies have located pending requests older than those reported to the Archive in 2003 and those reported to Congress as recently as this year, suggesting not only a broken system, but one immersed in confusion and disarray," the study said.
Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, have sponsored the OPEN Government Act to speed agency responses. It would compel agencies to more accurately track its pending requests.
Citing Justice Department objections, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., put a hold on the bill, blocking a Senate floor vote. Kyl's staff is discussing the concerns with Justice and Leahy's staff, according to a Kyl spokesman who requested anonymity under standard policy for Hill offices. "There are no fundamental objections, and the hope is we'll be able to reach a consensus," he said.
Kyl and Justice objected to a provision that would prohibit agencies from using some of the law's exemptions if the 20-day deadline was missed, but Leahy and House backers of the bill have agreed to delete that in favor of a provision that would prohibit charging fees for late responses. There is also disagreement over whether to require agencies to pay attorney fees for requesters if the agency settles part way through a lawsuit.
In a written statement, the Justice Department said Bush's 2005 order "provides a comprehensive framework for agencies ... to improve their administration of the FOIA" and they have already begun to do so.
The Justice Department denied misreporting to Congress the Office of Information & Privacy's oldest pending request. It said it used the date the request was received, Feb. 5, 2002, not the date it was sent, Oct. 22, 2001, which the Archive cited.
The requester, attorney Rick Cinquegrana, who worked down the hall from OIP during 1980-1991, said the difference probably resulted from lengthy offsite screening of Justice mail in late 2001-early 2002 for anthrax contamination. Cinquegrana, who sought data on FOIA administration to update a law review article he had written, said Monday, "I've largely given up on getting an answer."