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FOIA And Its Discontents

(AP / CBS)
The Freedom of Information Act turned 40 earlier this month, and a Government Accountability Office study released yesterday reinforced what has often been reporters' primary gripe about the law – requests take too long. According to the study, (you can read it here) "federal agencies are taking longer to answer requests for records but provide fully responsive documents nearly nine out of 10 times," the Associated Press wrote today.

For example, the report said that the number of FOIA requests that have been carried over annually has risen 43% since 2002. It was introduced during a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing, during which testimony pointed out both sides of the information tug of war. Reported the AP:

"'Federal departments and agencies are operating in the post 9/11 information age and face 21st Century security, information management and resource challenges,' said Rep. Todd Russell Platts, R-Pa.

Tonda Rush, representing the National Newspaper Association and The Sunshine in Government Initiative, said the open records law 'has become less reliable, less effective and a less timely vehicle for informing the public of government activities and newsworthy stories.'"

We asked a few CBS News producers and correspondents what their experiences filing FOIA requests have been like – some find the process more useful than others.

Wendy Krantz, a producer for the investigative unit at CBS News in New York said her experience filing FOIA requests has been "okay." Krantz noted that by law the agency must respond to the request within 10 days – although that is typically just an acknowledgment that the request has been received. "The key is tailoring your request, and writing with some specificity," she wrote in an e-mail. "After the initial request, they can drag their feet … so I just hound them every single day, which is how I end up usually getting some information."

The time constraints associated with FOIA requests are a problem, said Krantz. "You definitely won't get information if you only have a two or three week turnaround" to complete a story. Her requests have typically taken 6 to 8 weeks, sometimes longer.

Correspondent Jim Stewart doesn't file FOIA requests much anymore because most of his work these days focuses on "day of" stories. "I find the process to be too lengthy, too adversarial, too time-consuming and not pertinent to what I do," said Stewart. "Although I know lots of print reporters who delight in taunting the beast by filing dozens of FOIA [requests]." For his purposes, though, "it's too little bang for your buck."

"For every one story that came from a FOIA request," Stewart said he could think of ten better stories that were "the result of good, old-fashioned reporting."

In "Evening News" producer Rob Hendin's experience, FOIA requests are "hit or miss." "The most efficient 'FOIA-ing'" occurs when the topic is "very hot or very public," he said. "Then the power of the whole collective media helps speed up process," since everyone is lodging the same requests.

Generally when making requests, "You have to be very specific," Hendin added. "If you're casting a wide net, it will take longer, because [the agency] has to check whether there are national security or privacy issues."

While she typically doesn't find FOIA requests useful because of the amount of time it takes to get them, Capitol Hill correspondent Sharyl Attkisson says she files them anyway.

"Often -- if not usually -- it takes years" for some of her requests, said Attkisson. "Occasionally, sooner or within months." But for the most part, her FOIA requests have "almost never worked in a timely fashion." Attkisson, who has covered many stories on the pharmaceutical industry and often submits requests to the Food and Drug Administration, said that she has FOIA requests to the agency that she filed as far back as 2001 that are still pending.

We took a look at some of the challenges of FOIA requests in an earlier post (on FOIA's birthday) which you can check out here.