Dear David M. Hardy

Dear Mr. Hardy, how are you today? Oh, I’m sorry to hear that! Cheer up, the weather will get better eventually – I mean, right now it’s raining here in Minnesota, which is going to cause all sorts of problems once the temperature gets back below freezing this evening. It could be worse, is what I’m saying.

Listen, this isn’t a purely social letter, unfortunately. I know you’re a busy man, overseeing the FBI‘s Record/Information Dissemination Section, and indirectly in charge of the dozens of people who handle the thousands of FOIA requests sent to the Bureau’s headquarters every year, so I’ll make this short and to the point: You need to either get better underlings, or better train the underlings, minions, and lackeys you already have, because the Bureau’s handling of FOIA requests and most everything connected to them is, frankly, appalling.

As I have pointed out before, the Bureau’s FOIA webpages are evil, useless, and user-unfriendly. Not superbad, Dick Cheney-levels of uselessness, user-unfriendliness, and evil, but still quite a bit worse than that low-grade baseline government taint. This is ironic, in a sadly appalling sort of way, because the Department of Justice are the grand poobahs of FOIA policy, yet the most prominent and visible branch of the DOJ consistently fails to live up to the standards they’d like to see set by others. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but as a whole, those young upstarts at Homeland Security are doing ten times better at handling FOIA requests than the Bureau. What would Hoover say?

They have email, for crying out loud, and it works. Amazing, isn’t it?

But that’s nothing compared to the half-assed way your underlings handle FOIA requests. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they can send out “no records” form letters like nobody else, even when there are actually records responsive to a request. But, really, that’s nothing compared to the appalling way your underlings handle FOIA requests for field offices. I mean, you do realize that several field offices – including Minneapolis and Portland, to name just two – for whatever reason don’t handle or process their own FOIA requests, but ask – insist – that they be sent to you folks in Virginia, right? Now, do any of your underlings realize this? I’m not merely being snarky, but really would like to know, because every request I make to the Minneapolis Field Office – including those I send directly to the Field Office, and which they then forward on to you themselves – gets – if it gets a response at all, which is increasingly rare – a “no records” form letter for “main files in the central records system at FBI Headquarters”, which does a most excellent job at not instilling confidence that a given request was actually, you know, processed correctly, given the next line in the form letter: “If you believe the records you seek are maintained at one of our many FBI field offices, you must also make a request to the specific Field Office where you believe the records are maintained.”

Not cool, Mr. Hardy. Not cool at all.

While I’ve – hopefully – got your attention (you do Google your own name, right?), may I point out that, despite the failure of the FBI website to mention them, the Bureau does, in fact, have quite a few other “systems of records” than just the “central records system”. I’m sure you’re aware of this, but the fine if under-trained people who actually handle FOIA requests on a day-to-day basis don’t seem to quite grasp this nuance, to judge from the way they send back “no records” form letters citing the “central records system” for quite clear and explicit “perfected” requests for very specific documents in other records systems. I don’t need to go into details about how aggravating, annoying, appalling, and just plain bad this is, do I?

The American people, Mr. Hardy, are – cannot help but be – saddened and disappointed by the Bureau’s endemic, systematic mishandling of its legally-mandated duties and obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (that would be 5 U.S.C. 552, et seq, as amended)… mishandling that has occurred, and continues to occur, on your watch. That probably doesn’t matter to you, I imagine, and perhaps rightly so – in your cushy office, never having to interact personally with the great unwashed masses, the overall impotence of the American populace to do anything about their displeasure with your underlings’ shoddy work is, naturally, of little importance to you. Who cares if a few scholars, researchers, and journalists are depressed, discouraged, and – yes – deprived of their rights. It’s not a big deal, right? I mean… who cares, when all is said and done?

The thing is, Mr. Hardy, President Bush – you remember, old frumpy guy, used to be in the White House, could barely speak English – was, despite his many flaws, an (occasional) advocate of the Freedom of Information Act. President Obama – you know, the young, tall guy in the White House these days – has made it pretty clear that he’s a big advocate of the FOIA, too, and of government accountability and transparency in general. Even Congress are pretty firm supporters of this wonderfully democratic process. And, while for the last decade or two your section’s appalling performance didn’t really matter all that much, I’m not so sure you want to disappoint Congress these days, Mr. Hardy, or the new President. President Obama, and Congress? They care about the FOIA, and accountability and openness and transparency. They are really big on this thing called “change” right now. You might want to look into making some all of your own initiative, before they, you know, arbitrarily decide to make you – or, hey, your abruptly-appointed successor – get in on the act.

Just a little friendly advice from one guy unhappy with your department’s work, and who is not employed by the government, to someone who, if things don’t improve, might just find himself in a similar situation.

Thanks for your time, sir; I do appreciate what you and your folks do, however little of it you do, and however badly you do it.

Respectfully,
Nemo

(P.S. If you’d like to, you know, discuss anything, Mr. Hardy, please feel free to contact me. I’m not really an asshole; I just play one on the internet.)

Published in: General | on February 9th, 2009| Comments Off on Dear David M. Hardy

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