Forty-five years after President Johnson signed the U.S. Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966, federal agency backlogs of FOIA requests are growing, with the oldest requests at eight agencies dating back over a decade and the single oldest request now 20 years old, according to the Knight Open Government Survey by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
The Knight Survey of the oldest requests utilized the FOIA to examine the actual copies of the oldest requests from the 35 federal agencies and components that process more than 90 percent of all FOIAs. It shows that the oldest requests in the U.S. government were submitted before the fall of the Soviet Union. These unfulfilled requests — some are for documents that are themselves more than 50 years old — are victims of an endless referral process in which any agency that claims “equity” can censor their release.
The Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to process and respond to a request within 20 business days, with the possibility of a ten-day extension under “unusual circumstances.” In his March 19, 2009 government-wide memo on FOIA, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that “long delays should not be viewed as an inevitable and insurmountable consequence of high demand.” Despite this, the Knight Survey shows that some FOIAs remain marooned for decades.
The two previous Knight Open government surveys conducted during the Obama administration have also shown that, despite a clear message from the President, government agencies have been slow to improve their Freedom of Information processes.
The 2010 Knight Survey, “Sunshine and Shadows,” showed that only 13 of 90 agencies implemented concrete changes in response to President Obama and Attorney General Holder’s early memoranda calling for FOIA reforms.
The March 2011 Knight Survey, “Glass Half Full,” showed improvement but still revealed that just 49 of 90 agencies had followed specific tasks mandated by the White House to improve their FOIA performance. As Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, put it, “At this rate, the president’s first term in office will be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office.”