OGIS’s “Final Response Letters” Go Behind the Scenes

We’re glad to see that OGIS has begun posting its “Final Response Letters”, in which the office explains what FOIA requesters have sought from agencies, what OGIS has done to help requesters, and how agencies have reacted. Although OGIS has only posted 26 letters so far, we can start to see some trends among the requests, denials, appeals, and reviews. First, OGIS has been able to provide assistance in the form of increased information, or education, or both, in nearly every case listed. In over half of the cases described, OGIS was able to obtain additional information the requester(s) had [More]

Curious about surveillance? FOIA has answers.

Many Americans are curious about electronic surveillance by the federal government. Conveniently, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has already helped provide some answers. Although much of the interest and attention arises from journalism in recent days (here, here, here, and here, and related stories), America has had various agencies conducting various forms of surveillance for various purposes for years. For over a decade, journalists have been using FOIA, among other means, to learn more about the surveillance capacities and activities of the federal government:

SGI Statement on the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records

The action of the U.S. Department of Justice is an affront to the relationship between the government and news media that our nation’s founders established over two centuries ago.  Journalists experienced in reporting on global affairs and national security respect the government’s need to keep information confidential to protect national security and carefully consider the government’s concerns when reporting on such matters. Last year Congress rejected a package of changes from the Senate Intelligence Committee that would have redefined the relationship between the government and press on reporting related to global affairs and national security. Until the Justice Department’s actions [More]

House panel’s pointed letter to Justice sends impatient message on #FOIA

In a renewed and welcome spirit of bipartisanship, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) asking pointed questions about OIP’s actions to encourage agencies to comply with FOIA by reducing backlogs, reigning in the use of statutory exemptions and updating FOIA regulations.  We’re especially appreciative that Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) mentioned a database of the statutory exemptions to FOIA that we compiled and ProPublica published a while ago. This is a great time [More]

OGIS puts up new website

The FOIA Ombudsman is rolling out a new website this week.  The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) created a sleek design with a library of informative background for new requesters and technical background for more experienced requesters. Much of the new site will be immediately useful to FOIA users.  The OGIS Library should prove useful for requesters who are new to FOIA and want to better understand the FOIA-speak that they sometimes receive in agency responses, although this material is similar to the technical background on the Justice Department’s FOIA.gov. Other parts are aspirational:  OGIS includes a section on [More]

Fixing FOIA: Justice proposal yet again shows FOIA needs leadership

A current, completely avoidable squabble arose this week over how the Justice Department should word responses that could reveal the existence of an investigation.  This dispute again shows the FOIA needs more attention and forceful leadership to resolve persistent problems and make the FOIA process work better. Here’s the current quandary:  How should the Justice Department respond to FOIA requests without tipping off suspects who are targets of secret criminal investigations?  Individuals or private entities trying to confirm whether they are subject to an investigation turn to FOIA as a convenient tool.  They file requests for documents hoping the government’s response [More]

Better late than never: grand jury material of historical value

Grand jury information is one of the most sought-after types of information that the public cannot see generally under the federal FOIA. Think spies, organized crime, and sports stars accused of cheating through performance-enhancing drugs. So it is welcome to see the Justice Department recently announce a move to open the door on grand juries to the public just a little more. American laws and courts have long recognized that grand jury information merits secrecy, but several recent cases developing a “historical significance” exception have led the Department of Justice to propose codifying the terms under which courts may release such [More]