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FBI Is the Worst FOIA Performer 92

Posted by kdawson
from the mind-the-gap dept.
krou writes "The National Security Archive at George Washington University has awarded its 2009 Rosemary Award to the FBI for worst freedom of information performance (PDF of the award). Previous winners have been the CIA and the Treasury. The NSA notes that 'The FBI's reports to Congress show that the Bureau is unable to find any records in response to two-thirds of its incoming FOIA requests on average over the past four years, when the other major government agencies averaged only a 13% "no records" response to public requests.' The FBI's explanation, according to the NSA, is that 'files are indexed only by reference terms that have to be manually applied by individual agents,' and even then, 'agents don't always index all relevant terms.' Furthermore, 'unless a requester specifically asks for a broader search, the FBI will only look in a central database of electronic file names at FBI headquarters in Washington.' Any search will therefore 'miss any internal or cross-references to people who are not the subject of an investigation, any records stored at other FBI offices around the country, and any records created before 1970.'"
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FBI Is the Worst FOIA Performer

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  • So basically... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Thelasko (1196535) on Friday March 13, 2009 @09:56AM (#27180011) Journal
    the FBI can't find anything, because their agents didn't tag their reports.
  • by Thelasko (1196535) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:06AM (#27180119) Journal

    sounds like the need to buy one of those Google search appliances...

    Yeah, but then they would have to hire someone to censor all of the search results manually, and would no longer have a good reason to deny FOIA requests.

    On a side note, this explains how so much intel falls through the cracks of our nation's intelligence agencies, only to be discovered after something tragic occurs. [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:So basically... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:06AM (#27180121) Journal
    Dilemma, both options bad: Either

    The FBI's recordkeeping and information handling internally are as poor as for FOIA requests, which would mean that it has no coherent idea what is going on, and is thus only effective in cases where minimally coordinated local offices can do the job.

    Or,

    The FBI finds it convenient to know nothing when those pesky people with their "rights" come knocking; which would mean that they are a cabal of hooverite scum and a threat to liberty and transparency.
  • by Ender_Stonebender (60900) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:08AM (#27180133) Homepage Journal

    Good god, I hope this doesn't become a long-running meme (especially the misspelling of "heard"). If it does, I will make an effort to show up in every /. thread to post a reply to these saying "Wurst. Meme. EVAR. </comic book guy>"

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:25AM (#27180247)

    ... it also means that they have severe trouble finding stuff for INTERNAL use. Sheesh!!!

  • by Shakrai (717556) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:50AM (#27180527) Journal

    Their focus has been on having field agents run investigations, not analysts like myself

    I'd be curious to know how (if at all) the FBI's focus has shifted since the new administration came in. I've talked to other people in Federal law enforcement that say the focus shifted too much onto terrorism at the expense of other important missions (counter-intelligence and organized crime to name two). Are you still seeing this or is the new administration seeking a more balanced approach?

  • by Unordained (262962) <unordained_slash ... @pseudotheos.com> on Friday March 13, 2009 @11:01AM (#27180719) Homepage

    Would cops bother you nearly as much if we fixed our laws to legalize what are currently consensual crimes (drugs, prostitution, etc.) and eliminate purely discretionary laws and arrest/contact quotas (which lead to cops only arresting public drunks if they annoy them, are someone they don't like, or would help fill that night's quota)? Would you regain your respect for our cops if they were employed protecting you from others, and had time to do that one job well? Would you regain your respect for our legal system if it weren't overburdened with those crap cases, and could take the time to really hear you out -- whichever side of the courtroom you're on?

  • Re:Also... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hordeking (1237940) on Friday March 13, 2009 @11:18AM (#27181023)

    They can't return anything from an FOIA request if they don't have anything on you.

    I had a friend who was absolutely certain that the FBI had a bunch of stuff on him. He just knew that they were keeping tabs on him so they could "do something" if he ever got out of line.

    The thing is, he'd never done anything. No criminal record, no tax issues, no affiliations with any group. He had some extremely mild anti-tax and anti-bureaucracy views, but didn't even talk about them that much, and never acted on them.

    So when he filed his FOIA request for all records, he got back nothing. Which made him even MORE paranoid. So he filed another one, for all surveillance tapes and records that they'd "hidden" the first time.

    I think he ended up filing three or four FOIA requests, until someone from the FBI came around and explained, very carefully, that he really wasn't very interesting.

    Quite an interesting post.

    Unfortunately, this is the necessary result of a culture of secrecy on the part of these organizations. They're assumed to know something, whether or not they really do. And if they claim to not have the information, they're assumed to be lying about not having it. People have good reason to make these assumptions, since these agencies have a history of doing exactly this.

  • Re:So basically... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Friday March 13, 2009 @11:35AM (#27181317)

    Dilemma, both options bad: Either The FBI's recordkeeping and information handling internally are as poor as for FOIA requests, which would mean that it has no coherent idea what is going on, and is thus only effective in cases where minimally coordinated local offices can do the job.

    Actually, that's not that unusual in large organizations; and is acerbated by government bureaucracy and funding methods. For eh really serious stuff, organizations are generally good at coordination, but there's a lot of other lower level stuff that gets done pretty much on a local level and never is seen elsewhere; so unless you know it exists through experience or an informal network (let me call Bob in New York and see what he knows) it is lost to the broader organization. Most government organizations would love google-like access and searching to their files because it would make their job easier and they'd be more effective; the reality is they don't have the money to buy the technology that enables that capability; TV and Movies aside many organizations are years behind the tech curve.

    Or, The FBI finds it convenient to know nothing when those pesky people with their "rights" come knocking; which would mean that they are a cabal of hooverite scum and a threat to liberty and transparency.

    My experience with government organizations is they really care about things like rights and liberty; probably more so than many of their fellow citizens and are willing to risk their lives defending their fellow citizens. Sure, there are a few bad apples, but that's not representative of the whole organization.

    In the end, never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by bureaucracy.

  • Re:Also... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TheInsaneSicilian (134631) on Friday March 13, 2009 @11:55AM (#27181627) Homepage

    They're assumed to know something, whether or not they really do.

    Which is exactly how they want to be viewed.

  • Re:Also... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by EtherMonkey (705611) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:40PM (#27185033)

    On the other hand, when you've had the FBI knock on your door at home and question your employer, you have a right to receive information on the cause and outcome of such investigations. Ditto for instances where the FBI has questioned you as a witness on a matter that might not be related to you personally.

    For the FBI to come back and say it can't find any related records is both disingenuous and frustrating. One can appreciate how this can result in paranoia.

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