A peek inside State Department's FOIA procedures

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The State Department uses retired Foreign Service officers to help determine what internal documents and memos can be released for Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a new watchdog report that gives a peek into how the department handles FOIA issues.

The department is notorious among journalists for its slow responses to FOIA requests. Earlier this month, the Center for Public Integrity received a response to a FOIA request it submitted 10 years ago to the State Department.

State had 138 full-time employees devoted to FOIA in 2009, the department inspector general said in the report. After initial reviewers of a FOIA request locate information to released, retired Foreign Service officers carry out a “two-tiered, often line-by-line review” to spot sensitive information that should be reconsidered, the report said. “The reviewers consult regularly with bureaus and offices on current sensitivities that may affect redaction decisions, but elements requesting redactions bear the burden of showing the necessity of those redactions while reviewers assume final authority over the outcome of their reviews,” it added.

While the department is sometimes slow to supply FOIA documents, the inspector general said it “found no indication that Department political leadership approves, obstructs or otherwise unduly influences the Department’s FOIA requests.”

The new watchdog report was prepared after Republicans Sen. Charles Grassley and Rep. Darrell Issa asked all federal inspectors general to review whether there was any political interference with how each agency handled FOIA requests. FOIA exemptions allow State to dismiss requests, such as classified information or sensitive material related to national security or foreign relations. “Department political leadership neither reviews nor approves, and does not direct the review or approval of, the release of information requested under FOIA,” the inspector general reported.

FAST FACT: When a journalist or citizen appeals a FOIA request that has been denied by the State Department, the case goes to a three-member panel that draws from a rotating group of retired ambassadors.

Following are other new watchdog reports released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), various federal Offices of Inspector General (OIG), and other government entities. Congressional Research Service reports, which prepared for lawmakers but not made public, were provided by the Center for Democracy and Technology:

NATIONAL SECURITY

  • The Labor Dept’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, which protects the jobs of deployed service members, needs to improve its reporting methods and coordination with other agencies (GAO).

HEALTH CARE

  • HHS awarded $5 million in grants for states to carry out a federal respite care program for family caregivers who spend much of their time caring for an adult or child with special needs (GAO).

MISC.

  • FAA needs a long-term plan for recruiting and training technicians, who must maintain some 60,000 pieces of aging air traffic control equipment as the agency prepares to roll out a new satellite-based control system (GAO).

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