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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.
    • 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.
      • 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.

      • 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.

        That'd be it. See this article about the complete failure that came about when SAIC was hired to modernize the FBI's computer systems. $200M spent and nothing to show for it but a smoking crater. Both the FBI and the contractor appear to have screwed this

      • by ps2os2 (1216366)

        When I was in college a "roommate" stole my wallet. I did not notice it until the next day. Needless to say he went on a crime spree and used my ID. Approximately 3 months later the FBI comes looking for me and I talk with them and I assure them I was not in this state or that state and that I was attending school and working on the dates in question. I get the bank (where I worked) to cough up my records and that proves to the FBI that I am not the person.
        Fast forward 40 years and I file an FOI with the FB

    • Also... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by cirby (2599) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:47AM (#27180495)

      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.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Hordeking (1237940)

        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: (Score:2, Insightful)

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

          Which is exactly how they want to be viewed.

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

            Which is exactly how they want to be viewed.

            Of course, that works if they want to keep enemies on their toes. It isn't so great when they get mobbed with requests for info they really don't have, since the requestors don't believe the "no" and request again, sue in court, go to their elected officials, plot against their perceived enemy, etc.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Thelasko (1196535)

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

        While it is true that there are likely many people requesting their own FBI file, only to discover that it doesn't exist, why didn't the FBI use that as an excuse? Instead, the article notes:

        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.'

      • 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.

        I think he can rest assured they have a file on him at this point. Win-win situation!

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by EtherMonkey (705611)

        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.

    • by ivucica (1001089)

      Semantic FBI!

  • congrats (Score:4, Informative)

    by mewshi_nya (1394329) on Friday March 13, 2009 @09:56AM (#27180021)

    At least you won an award for your sucking...

  • by dkleinsc (563838) on Friday March 13, 2009 @09:57AM (#27180027) Homepage

    I mean, would you think the FBI would be willing to let the citizenry know about ******* and ***** and ***** ***** *******? That would pose a massive security risk to ****** **********, and couldn't be allowed under any circumstances.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I love madlibs!

  • "Great, you've identified the problem. Step 2 is washing it off."
  • Not too surprising (Score:5, Interesting)

    by oodaloop (1229816) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:03AM (#27180099)
    The FBI has been one of the most technophobic federal agencies, if not THE most, being one of the last to finally get computers. Their regional offices do not coordinate with each other, so that an investigation into a New Orleans drug trafficking network will have no way of knowing about an investigation into a Seattle drug trafficking network involving the same people (which actually happened, IIRC). And it's only been since after 9/11 that they've really tried to have people at the HQ try to put pieces to together. Their focus has been on having field agents run investigations, not analysts like myself. That's just my $.02 anyway, YMMV, etc.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Shakrai (717556)

      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 conureman (748753)

      Gee, if I was some government criminal perpetrating injustice on the citizenry, I'd have a similar system in place to maintain plausible deniability and an illusion of competence and integrity. Personal experience supports this interpretation.

      • by mariox19 (632969)

        Their explanation is basically: "We try to put everything in a really good place, but often forget what we did with a thing when we go to look for it." Try that in court when the FBI is investigating you.

        • by conureman (748753)

          I could relate an unfortunate number of megillahs regarding my personal experiences with my government servants. This misplacement of documents is one of the pillars of our infrastructure.

  • by JustOK (667959)

    If they can't find anything then
    how do they know there's nothing to find?

    • http://www.fbi.gov/gotcha/archive/got051608.htm [fbi.gov]

      Mr. Schiff: One of the first times the FBI used computers in an investigation was in the late 70s. Several companies wanting to help build California freeways were involved in rigging bids for concrete beams...

      Mr. Marshall: "It's my understanding that computers are essential in whatever type of investigation you have."

      Mr. Schiff: That's retired FBI Special Agent Hal Marshall...

      Mr. Marshall: "Especially in coordinating information with other offices; information being specifically available in real time rather than trying to quire someone by the telephone or, in those days, we had teletypes."

      Mr. Schiff: Investigators found out about secret meetings. Marshall says telephone records were subpoenaed and then reviewed by hand at first. Then he had a thought...

      Mr. Marshall: "We're moving into a new era, let me call FBI Headquarters. I called FBI Headquarters and talked with the then new computer section and told them what we had and they said, 'Please send them to us so we can help you out.' And that is what happened."

      Mr. Schiff: There were convictions and guilty pleas after computers helped prove anti-trust violations. I'm Neal Schiff of the Bureau and that's the FBI's Closed Case of the Week."

      Yes, those computers... They solve crimes!

  • by Aristophrenia (917761) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:11AM (#27180153)
    You would think that for an agency, that according to its name, deals with investigations that they would be a bit better at, well, investigating? Makes me wonder how they keep track of things internally as well. All that aside, maybe they should change their priorities. Perhaps putting number 10 a little high up to, you know, successfully perform the FBI's mission. 1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack 2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage 3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes 4. Combat public corruption at all levels 5. Protect civil rights 6. Combat transnational/national criminal organizations and enterprises 7. Combat major white-collar crime 8. Combat significant violent crime 9. Support federal, state, local and international partners 10. Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI's mission Taken from http://www.fbi.gov/quickfacts.htm/ [fbi.gov]
  • couldn't find their ass if you spotted them both hands. might as well put all their records in shoeboxes and label them "Stuff."

    • You would think, eh?

      Thing is, they do keep such a database, which works quite fine for those who have access to it.
  • by rvw (755107)

    The NSA? Is this a joke?

    • Re:The NSA? (Score:4, Informative)

      by krou (1027572) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:17AM (#27180187)
      NSA in this context is "National Security Archive", not "National Security Agency".
    • by oodaloop (1229816)
      The joke is that you couldn't read the first 4 words of TFS. A new low for /..
  • by BiggoronSword (1135013) on Friday March 13, 2009 @10:12AM (#27180161) Homepage Journal
    Please expand my search to include "Agent Mulder," "The Smoking Man," and "Circus Freaks." I want to believe.
  • by Anonymous Coward

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

  • If the FOIA won't open up the FBI's OLD OLD OLD files, then reform is needed. The 1940s - 1950s stuff is history. That stuff should be fully open to the public--like a library--unless the FBI specifically claims an exemption for it.

    The historians will index that stuff for the FBI. You can bet on that.

    Such bullshit.

  • And so far, so good. Sent off the request (snail mail) January 6th. Got a formal response from them February 5th, acknowledging my request.

    http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1082501&cid=26350959 [slashdot.org]

  • of an old SNL skit (original cast). As I recall: a man walks into an FBI office and asks for the information they have on him. The agent (I think it was Akroyd) haphazardly looks through some files, and asks for help in the form of further details of what illegal activities he might be involved in. The man offers up several types of minor crime he has engaged in. The agent still finds nothing, then sends him away after getting contact info and assuring him they would let him know if they find anything. As
  • ... people didn't ask for sensitive information.

  • We see on the TV shows FBI agents looking up all sorts of crap on their computers that even Google couldn't find, whereas in reality these idiots barely even have a filing system, let alone any kind of sensible database.

    They can't even find files actually stored in their branch offices! DUH! Most corporations would go out of business if they couldn't do that!

    And this is what, after several multi-hundred million dollar attempts to upgrade their management information systems?

    Your tax dollars at work.

    That, an

  • The good news is that while being the worst at producing the documents, they also have the cleanest record.
  • I tried to be helpful on counter-terrorism a couple of times. Sent a letter to Washington, full return address, phone, etc. Made another suggestion to the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge Authority and got a visit from a special agent of the FBI. Sent him some more stuff by e-mail at his request. All since 9/11. FBI claims to have no record of any of it.
  • I'd be willing to be that they're also the recipient of more FOIA requests than any other two agencies combined. If that's so, then this may be as meaningless a statistic as any other. In addition, I'm sure that many of the requests relate to the late 1960s - which won't be found anyway.
  • I'm sure the FBI is ok taking a hit for "bad record keeping". I'm happy to contribute my taxes toward their real priorities: 1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack. 2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage. 3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes. 4. Combat public corruption at all levels. 5. Protect civil rights. 6. Combat transnational and national criminal organizations and enterprises. 7. Combat major whi

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