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Sunshine Week Special: NARA’s Oldest FOIA Request- At 26 Years Old- Is About to Get Kicked Off Its Parent’s Insurance

March 16, 2020
Update: NARA’s General Counsel and Chief FOIA Officer, Gary Stern, reached out to the Archive concerning our blog post on his agency’s 26-year-old FOIA request; the data used for the blog was found in NARA’s FY2019 FOIA report. Stern points out that the FOIA request in question, along with several others, were processed after the completion of the FY2019 report. Stern’s full comments are as follows: 
“The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) understands the National Security Archive’s concern about NARA’s oldest FOIA cases.The good news is that NARA was able to close the 1994 case in November 2019 (based on a required third agency declassification review). We’ve since closed seven of our current ten oldest cases, which now means our oldest FOIA case is from 2004. While 16 years is still too long for a requester to have to wait for a complete response, NARA is doing as much as we can with our limited resources to respond to all FOIA requesters.” 
We appreciate both the update and that NARA continues to engage with requesters on their FOIA concerns! 

By Claire Harvey

The National Archives and Records Administration oldest pending FOIA request is about to turn 26 years old, according to NARA’s 2019 Fiscal Year Annual FOIA Report. To put this delay in perspective, the 1994 FOIA request is so old that it is nearing one of the last benchmarks of young adulthood: being forced off your parent’s health insurance plan. The report was released in anticipation of Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of open access to public information, which begins today, March 16th.  Check out the Archive’s 2020 audit, which found that over the past four years nearly three quarters of the White House decisions have contradicted the President’s claim that he is “the most transparent President in history.”

NARA’s 1994 FOIA request indicates that the agency’s chronic processing delays have worsened since the Archive’s 2019 Sunshine Week audit, which found that in FY2018, the oldest report was from 1993, or 25 years old. The FY2019 FOIA report also shows that NARA’s oldest administrative appeals are aging too; an October 2012 appeal has been the agency’s oldest for five years.

Image: NARA FY2019 FOIA Report

The Nation Security Archive’s 2019 Sunshine Week Audit found a correlation between agencies with oldest FOIA requests and those with the largest FOIA backlogs. After parsing through annual FOIA Reports, the survey found that delays are frequently the result of “referral black holes.” Despite being costly, redundant, and inefficient, agencies regularly refer FOIA requests to any agency with possible equities, resulting in often decades-long delays and the re-review of the same document multiple times.

Agencies are required to send their annual FOIA reports to the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy. As of writing this, 11 out of 15 departments and 83 out of 100 agencies have posted their FY2019 Annual Reports. While NARA has published its FY2019 report on its website, OIP has yet to add it to their own site. 17 other agencies that have published their FY2019 reports online have not been added to OIP’s site. The OIP reports page- particularly for historic reports-is plagued by broken links, such as the DOD’s FY2019 and FY2018 annual FOIA reports. This makes it impossible for the public to access previous FOIA statistics and chart agencies’ progress.

The National Security Archive has conducted 19 audits since 2002. Modeled after the California Sunshine Survey and subsequent state “FOI Audits,” the Archive’s FOIA Audits use open-government laws to test whether or not agencies are obeying those same laws. Read our newest audit here. Check out our previous audits below:

 

 

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gary M. Stern permalink
    March 17, 2020 6:08 pm

    The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) understands the National Security Archive’s concern about NARA’s oldest FOIA cases. The good news is that NARA was able to close the 1994 case in November 2019 (based on a required third agency declassification review). We’ve since closed seven of our current ten oldest cases, which now means our oldest FOIA case is from 2004. While 16 years is still too long for a requester to have to wait for a complete response, NARA is doing as much as we can with our limited resources to respond to all FOIA requesters.
    Gary M. Stern
    NARA General Counsel and Chief FOIA Officer

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