Some FOIA Requests Languish For Years, Study Finds

There is a Freedom of Information Act request dating back to the Reagan administration that has not yet been acted on.

That's according to a Knight Open Government Survey being released Monday in Washington.

The oldest FOIA request still on the books is from 1987. Dated May 5, 1987, it was filed with the State Department by the Church of Scientology seeking "all documents from the State Department offices responsible for the Vatican and Italy related to the Church of Scientology or 'cults.' "

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, but this kind of inexcusable delay by federal agencies just keeps us in the dark," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which released the survey.

The archive filed its own FOIA requests in January of this year with 87 agencies for the "ten oldest" FOIA requests. Fifty seven of the agencies responded, and were a lot quicker in providing those lists than they were in complying with the requests on the lists.

Of the 507 pending requests, only 20 were less than the 20-day period in which agencies are supposed to respond to the requests. It's been six months since the requests were filed, so the 30 agencies that haven't gotten back to the Archive are already buidling their backlog for the next survey.

All 10 of the State Department's oldest were more than 15 years old, the majority of the oldest requests from all 57 agencies.

The Justice Department and the Air Force had some of the next oldest pending requests.

The survey also uncovered some discrepancies between what some of the agencies reported to the Archive and what some of them told Congress. Justice, for example, which is fighting FOIA reform legislation that passed the House in March, claimed in a recent report that its oldest request was from 2003, according to the Archive’s general counsel, Meredith Fuchs, but the study's FOIA turned up a request from 2001.

Broadcasters back the FOIA bill, which among other things better defines the 20-day shot clock for acting on FOIA requests, toughens reporting requirements, creates a tracking system for the requests and disciplinary actions for arbitrary denials, and helps journalists more easily recover court costs for challenges.

This is the fifth FOIA audit conducted by the Archive.

The Achive did not contact the FCC because it only sought info from the agencies that get the most requests and have the bigggest backlogs, neither of which apparently included the FCC. The commission reported to Congress that its oldest pending request was from May 2006.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.