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FOI Act requests mostly personal, study shows

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Aug. 18, 2005

FOI Act requests mostly personal, study shows

  • Requests for personal information dominate federal Freedom of Information Act activity, and FOI Act lawsuits filed by news media comprise fewer than 1 percent of FOI Act cases, according to examination of agency reports by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

Aug. 18, 2005  ·   Federal reports show that the great bulk of Freedom of Information activity by the federal government has little to do with FOI requests by the news media, according to assessments released Wednesday by the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government.

Its review, which included of annual reports to Congress and litigation reports by the Department of Justice for 2004, shows that the number of federal FOI requests reached an all-time high in 2004, increasing by 23 percent to more than 4 million separate requests. It also shows that the government-wide backlog of requests to be processed increased 15 percent.

However, most FOI requests are from people seeking personal information from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration. For instance, the Social Security Administration received more than 1.8 million requests from people seeking their own Social Security records. The CJOG report notes that those requesters are likely to get the information they seek and get it in a timely fashion. But requesters seeking non-personal information from other agencies got all or some of the information they sought only two-thirds of the time.

CJOG also showed that overall a requester had only a one in six chance of obtaining more information through administrative appeal in 2004, with the State Department most likely to grant a favorable appeal (59 percent) and the Justice Department the least likely (6 percent).

Among the delays the CJOG report assesses are agency response times to requests for expedited review, decisions that by law are to be made within five working days. The Department of Defense’s median response time for granting or denying expedited review was one day. In contrast, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys had 36 expedited review requests pending for more than 195 working days — nearly 10 months.

CJOG, an alliance of more than 30 journalism groups, compiled the information from 25 annual reports to Congress on FOI Act activity by federal departments and selected agencies.

CJOG’s tallies from of the Justice Department’s litigation reports suggest that fewer than 2 percent of the requesters denied information were likely to litigate the denials, and that when requesters did litigate they won outright in fewer than 3 percent of the cases. The government won 70 percent of the time. In the remaining 27 percent of cases, plaintiffs got some records through court order or stipulated agreement.

News media are numerically minor players. Only 18 of 2,460 FOI legal cases reported involve media companies.

The report also shows a significant decrease — from 40 percent to 3 percent — in government payment of requester litigation fees since 2001 when the standards for plaintiff recovery of attorney fees from the federal government was altered in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The CJOG tallies, which are available at, show that reported government spending on FOI litigation nearly doubled to $18 million in 2004; however, government officials maintain that they had not accurately reported litigation figures in previous years.


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