Is FOIA Becoming (A Little) Less Frustrating?

(AP)
As any journalist can tell you, dealing with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) can be enough to make you wish you'd gone into a different line of work.

It all sounds so simple at first: If you want a document or piece of unreleased but legally available information from the U.S. government, you submit a FOIA request. But government agencies are, unsurprisingly, reticent to cooperate with journalists or other individuals seeking information that could make them look bad, so the response is almost never what you're hoping for.

Instead of a few pages of documents or a neat summary of what you're looking for, you might face long response times, be offered incomplete documentation, or be told that to pay high fees. You might get buried in so much paper that it becomes extremely difficult to find what you first requested. You might never hear back at all.

Which is why it's good news that Congress has passed legislation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. If the president does not veto the bill, it would mandate that agencies respond to FOIA requests within 20 days – and be punished if they don't – and create a system for tracking requests, among other innovations.

"Currently, delays, staggering legal fees and mountains of red tape undercut FOIA's usefulness for citizens and journalists," David Cuillier of the Society of Professional Journalists in a statement emailed to Public Eye. "This bill is crucial for helping FOIA work better, which in turn, helps democracy work better."

In recent years, agencies' response time to FOIA requests has decreased, and the Bush administration has not exactly shown a propensity towards making information publicly available. In 2001, for example, President Bush signed an executive order allowing presidents to delay the release of many of their records indefinitely.

It is thus something of an open question whether the president will sign the legislation, which reflects a compromise crafted after the White House and Justice Department objected to some of the details, including restoration of a provision that agencies release information unless they determine it will do harm. (After Sept. 11, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had instructed agencies to err on the side of not releasing information.) The Associated Press speculates that Mr. Bush might simply ignore the bill, which would have the effect of causing the new rules to go into effect after 10 days.

"This pocket-veto-in-reverse would give Bush some political cover, allowing the FOIA bill to become law without taking the affirmative step of endorsing it," notes the AP.