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State Department FOIA requests unanswered four long years later

Obama promised more responsiveness, but delays are still common

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 Wayne Partlow/The Associated Press

The Obama administration has pledged to improve the government’s responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests, but major delays still plague many federal agencies — including the Department of State, which last month invited the Center for Public Integrity to withdraw an April 2007 request that has remained unfilled.

Delays in processing of FOIA request have long been a sore spot among journalists and open government advocates, but President Obama offered a ray of hope by promising on just his second day in office — Jan. 21, 2009 — to to do better. A memo from the president said a democracy “requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency.” The memo went on to say that in responding to FOIA requests, “executive branch agencies … should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation.”   

But the Center’s recent experiences do not give cause for optimism. In the spring and summer of 2007, Center reporter Devin Varsalona requested documents from the State Department about political appointees serving as ambassadors abroad, for a 2008 story called “Checkbook Diplomacy,” part of The Buying of the President 2008 project. The story examined the long-standing practice of presidents rewarding big-money donors and fundraisers with plum diplomatic postings — a system which continues in the Obama administration, as the Center reported in the early days of his administration and again last month. But many of Varsalona’s requests had not been processed at the State Department’s FOIA office by the time the 2008 story came out.

Varsalona is no longer with the Center, but last October a package of 43 documents was delivered to the Center in response to an April 30, 2007 FOIA — more than three years after the initial submission. By that point, both the ambassador in question (Ambassador to Jamaica Sue McCourt Cobb) and the president who appointed her had both departed their posts. Just last month, on June 15, a second, smaller package from State arrived at the Center, this one via registered mail, containing a letter referencing another one of Varsalona's 2007 case filings.

The letter said the State Department was “undertaking a comprehensive effort” to clear its backlog of requests and was thus writing to “inquire whether you are still interested in pursuing this case.” The letter warns that without a response within 45 days, the department will close the case and take no further action. The postage on the envelope indicated that the cost to taxpayers for the delivery was $14.93. A day later, a similar letter arrived, referencing a different case number — mailed first class at a cost of just 44 cents. On June 21, three more letters from State arrived asking whether Varsalona would withdraw FOIAs, all registered mail. 

The State Department has long had problems with timely FOIA responses. A 2011 study by the National Security Archive at George Washington University listed the State Department as one of the few federal agencies that as of March 10, 2011, had not provided any final response to Obama’s open government memo.

According to the State Department’s annual FOIA report to Congress for 2010, the median response for complex FOIA requests is 228 days. Some of the Center’s FOIA requests to State for the “Checkbook Diplomacy” story have now been pending more than 1,500 days. As the time has long since passed for this information to inform the story, the Center has now withdrawn those requests.   

A spokesman for the State Department did not respond to requests for comment about the slow response time or the reason that registered mail was used for some correspondence.

Bill Allison of the non-profit Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency and openness, calls the State Department’s FOIA office “one of the worst,” notorious for taking their “own sweet time” and playing a waiting game in the hopes that requesters “just go away.” He says that the four-year-plus wait time is a major problem from a transparency and accountability standpoint. “No reporter works on a four-year time-cycle.” The State Department’s budget submission for fiscal year 2012 includes a request for $166,000 in new money to defend the department in FOIA-related lawsuits. The request notes that “in the past two years alone, preparing the department’s defense in these lawsuits has necessitated a four-fold increase in staff time.”

State is far from the only agency still experiencing problems. A new report from the National Security Archive says the oldest FOIA requests at eight different agencies now date back more than a decade, according to the Associated Press. The report said the single oldest request was made to the National Archives 20 years ago for State Department files about nuclear research from the 1950s, AP reported. The National Security Archive noted that many long-standing requests had likely fallen victim to a referral process in which any agency with a stake in the material can seek to prevent its release.