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From the Winter 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 35.

From the Winter 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 35.

To get public information from the federal government, you might have to wait for more than a decade.

A survey released in November 2003 by the National Security Archive, an organization dedicated to ensuring public access to government information, found that the 10 oldest federal Freedom of Information Act requests date back to the late 1980s. The oldest request was first filed on Nov. 9, 1987, from San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld, on FBI activities at the University of California at Berkeley.

The National Security Archive, located in Washington, D.C., began its audit in January 2003. It tapped the 35 federal agencies that receive 97 percent of all FOI Act requests.

According to Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the NSA, there is no guarantee that her organization’s results are accurate, as some of the agencies found it impossible to fully trace pending FOI Act requests. Six of the agencies still had not responded to the NSA’s request as of mid-November. The federal FOI Act gives agencies 20 business days to respond.

Fuchs, who supervised the audit, said the project highlighted widespread problems in how agencies handle requests.

“There were a couple of instances where the agencies basically told us that their main FOIA office couldn’t help us, and that we would have to make requests to about 100 different components in order to find the 10 oldest” requests, Fuchs said.

Nonetheless, the audit produced some valuable results. Fuchs said the audit attracted the attention of senior management in at least one agency’s FOI center. Some of the oldest FOI requests, specifically those filed by the NSA, were processed as a result.

Perhaps the greatest value of the audit, Fuchs said, was that it highlighted flaws in how federal agencies report their FOI Act compliance each year to Congress. Those reports serve as the primary tool of congressional oversight, and do not account for lengthy delays because of referrals or the negotiation of fees, which can add months or years to the process.

“The audit raised questions in the public and (agency) senior management’s minds about delays,” Fuchs said. “It may help solve some of the resistance that agencies have to giving out records.”

— AS