Accessing documents using a FOIA request can be a challenge. Officials argue that they need time to process the many requests that they receive, and to make sure that they do not share sensitive information with the public. They say that FOIA "is overused by prisoners and aliens to overtax the system. It is abused by lawyers to circumvent court discovery rules. It is employed by businesses to gain unfair advantage over competitors. It is exploited by journalists to invade personal privacy and endanger national security." But transparency advocates say that the government takes too long with requests and keeps classified information that should be in the public domain. Writes the AP: "Seeking records can be a hair-pulling experience, with requests often taking months or even years before paperwork - if any - is returned."
Officials have numerous strategies for dealing with an unwanted FOIA request, and most journalists are familiar with at least a few of them. A few years ago, I was working on a story for Washington City Paper about a DC governmental agency, and I submitted a FOIA request in an effort to find out as much as I could about the agency. After a significant delay, I received boxes of documents, most of which contained information that was obviously useless for my work. I had been "buried in paper," as they say, and was of course charged for every copy.
It could have been worse, of course. "Brian Martin of Denver, a private computer-security consultant, submitted two requests for records to the Homeland Security Department more than a year ago - and never heard back. Martin sought information about how much the government spends tracking software problems exploited by hackers and others," notes the AP. When he made a similar request of the Commerce Department, Martin was told he could have the information – so long as he paid more than $1,800 in copying and search fees.