Delayed, Denied, Dismissed: Failures on the FOIA Front
On the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act, ProPublica published a collection of stories by journalists about their "most frustrating public record failures". If that sounds boring, it really isn't. These are fascinating and appalling stories that raise any number of other governance issues about as well.
The stories painfully underscore how easy it is for the government, under current FOIA rules, to simply outwait the reporter. At some point - after months, or years - the journalist has to file his story, with or without docs; or the story is simply no longer relevant.
These stories also hint at just how much waste, overreach and misbehaviour is being successfully hidden this way. And they offer rare examples of issues that merit bipartisan criticism.
Finally, in November 2014 — more than 3½ years after I filed my appeal — I received a final response: Denied. We are at war, I was told, and I am not entitled to the records. There was no explanation of how doctors would be put at risk by releasing their names. No sense of when or if this “war” would ever end — or whether the DOD could use it as an excuse forever.
More than 40 projects were terminated before they even began. The agency was releasing so little information, the GAO said, that it was difficult to determine if the program had worked. "We are left with a program that spent $3 billion,” a GAO investigator told Politico last summer, “and we really don’t know what became of it.”
In November 2013, a U.S. customs official refused to let Toronto resident Ellen Richardson board a flight to New York because she had been hospitalized for depression — and was therefore considered a mental health risk. A Canadian privacy commissioner investigated and found that Ontario police were routinely uploading suicide calls into a database that was accessed by the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.