Why the Press Can’t Get No FOIA-action

When open to interpretation leads to a lot of no.

If you’re working on a story that depends on public records and haven’t sent in that FOIA request, we hope you have a multi-year lead time on that. Erin Carroll, writing in CJR, takes a look at why the press’ pass to cut to the head of the line isn’t working so well these days.

Of the two ways to get the government to expedite a records request under the Freedom of Information Act, one is specifically targeted toward journalists, or, people “primarily engaged in disseminating information” and allows them to enjoy an expedited process when there is “urgency to inform the public concerning actual or alleged Federal Government activity.” In theory.

To that line of brilliantly vague language, federal agencies get to apply their equally vague understanding of the rule, ensuring that in practice, the clause is useless. Carroll counts the ways:

The State Department’s response to the AP is increasingly common. In 2014, agencies denied 87 percent of the 9,981 so-called “expedited processing” requests made under FOIA. This is up from a rejection rate of only 53 percent in 2008. And the rejection rate at certain agencies is far higher. The Securities and Exchange Commission granted only three of the 253 expedited processing requests it received last year.

Wait times and rejected expedition requests aren’t the only things on the rise. Last year the Obama administration set a record in the regular rejection department as well. Of the 647,142 requests the government responded to, it censored part or all of 250,581 cases. In 215,584 other cases, the government denied the request, couldn’t come up with records or the requestor couldn’t come up with the fee.

The age of transparency looks very opaque these days.