Lost in Bureaucratic Space: Freedom of Information


About a year late, and long after swine flu has ceased to become an urgent national story, the federal government appears to be getting around to answering my "expedited" swine flu Freedom of Information request.

Sort of.

The short back-story to all of this is as follows: last fall I was made aware of the fact that Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had advised states to stop testing and tracking H1N1 or "swine flu."

Sources indicated they felt this decision was hasty and ill-though-out, and could be designed to skew the public's view of how widespread swine flu really was - or in this case, was not.

Getting statistics and answers would have been easy, if the CDC had provided the public documents I requested. The documents should have been provided quickly, as they were clearly public in nature, they were readily accessible (requiring no special search), and my request was very specific as to what I needed to see. When the CDC balked at providing the information and quit communicating with me, I submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for the materials. Under FOI law, my request was entitled to expedited processing because--among other reasons-- it about an issue of public safety, and an issue of widespread public interest.

At the time, CDC denied my request for expedited processing denying - laughably - that swine flu was of widespread interest to the public. That meant my request, dated August 27, 2009, went at the end of a long, mysterious cue where it might be fulfilled in weeks, months... or someday.

Why the backlog of FOI requests? Partly to blame is the government's practice of requiring most all requests for public documents, even the most simple, to go through the FOI process. That just makes more work and costs (taxpayers) money. Specific, simple requests for public records should be filled on-the-spot without a formal FOI request.

Putting a FOI request in writing for readily-accessible public documents shouldn't be necessary. But many government agencies require the submission nonetheless. Although FOI was intended to guarantee the public access to the documents it owns, many journalists have found government bureaucrats now use FOI to obstruct or delay release of obviously public materials. In any case, when a FOI request is required, then simple, specific responses should be provided immediately when possible rather than assigning the request to a long, indefinite cue.

I managed to get most of the information I needed from other sources. After confronting the Director of CDC at a public news conference last year, CDC provided me belatedly with some of the materials I'd been seeking.

Meanwhile, the slowly-grinding government FOI wheels have been turning for nearly a year, and I finally received a letter of response from the government. The letter is dated July 15, 2010, approximately eleven months after my request. It's from Health and Human Services (HHS). It states that it has a certain document responsive to my FOI request. The letter says HHS will try really hard to provide the document soon, but that the folks there are very busy so it may take awhile. It says that if I want expedited processing - something I had already applied for a year ago - I should let them know. A phone number was provided in case I had any questions.

Of course the investigative report I was working on is long over, as the bureaucrats must have known it would be by now.

Nonetheless, I called the number provided on the HHS letter, and got an out-of-office recording. I told the recording on the other end that this FOI request was almost a year old, and I had requested expedited processing all along. I asked someone to call me back.

That was a few weeks ago.

Nobody called.

  • Sharyl Attkisson
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.