Ah, Sunshine Week

This week is Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of much that is theoretically good about the U.S. government big and small. Last year, I celebrated this dubious weeklong holiday by publishing information disclosed or released under either the Freedom of Information Act, or the local Minnesota equivalent, each day of the week.

This week, I won’t be doing that. Sorry.

It’s not that I don’t want to piss off the city and get investigated by the police again, but that the government’s ability to actually produce material in response to requests over the past year has been really, really bad.

Usually, what happens is I make requests year-round, and publish interesting stuff here as and when I get it. Around the beginning of the year, I try to start sitting on stuff I’ve received, holding enough back to have something to show during Sunshine Week. Alas, this year the government has conspired against this plan, by releasing damned little to me in recent months.

Sharon over at Danger Room has a nice post up today that’s a sort of ode to her fickle, ill-advised relationship with the FOIA. In a similarly not-quite-light-hearted fashion, here’s my list of “Top 10 Most Annoying FOIA Performers” for 2008:

#10: The Department of Homeland Security
For the most part, DHS does a pretty decent job of responding to FOIA requests, which is why they’re at the bottom of the list. However, they still make the list for the erratic and incomprehensible redactions they make – and sustain upon appeal – in released documents. (See, for example, their redaction of abbreviations of extremist groups names’ – but not the names themselves – here.)

#9: The State Department
Okay, they’re slower than something that’s really slow, on a slow day. And they screw the pooch with style and enthusiasm every now and then. But, to be fair, at least they’re polite and helpful, which is more than can be said for a lot of other agencies.

#8: The City of Saint Paul
As Sharon wonders (see link above), “is it me, or is it them?”. I’m fairly certain it’s them – I keep emailing requests to them, and get nice acknowledgments that the request has been forwarded to this or that person… and that’s quite literally all I ever hear from them again. I call, and they take my name and number, and promise to get back to me. So far, hasn’t actually materialized. (The records department at the PD is perhaps an exception, in that they’re ridiculously helpful – but, then again, I almost always head down there and talk to them in person…)

#7: The Wisconsin Air National Guard
I sent them a request, by email. The email bounced. I emailed their “public affairs” account, and it didn’t bounce, but I never got a response. I finally sent them a dead-tree FOIA request, and – several months later – don’t even have an acknowledgment. And the FOIA address still doesn’t work! Wankers.

#6: The Defense Technology Information Center (DTIC)
I made a pretty simple FOIA request to them well over a year ago. Sometime last year, the document I’d requested was posted online, in public, on their website, in full. They still haven’t actually gotten around to processing my request, six months later…

#5 The United States Coast Guard
No matter who you send your request to, it should have been sent somewhere else in this confusing and labyrinthine organization. Don’t fret, though – all the FOIA officers are really, really nice, and will happily forward your request along to the correct command. That, however, is the absolute last you will ever hear from the USCG about your request. (Super-duper irony edition: Twice now I’ve requested their FOIA guidelines and policy documents, which were – or should have been – created a year or two ago in response to a couple of reform-minded directives. Twice now those requests have just… disappeared somewhere along the way.)

#4: The United States Army
I like to think of the Army, only somewhat affectionately, as a mentally-disabled caveman who talks about itself in the third person. The only real benefit of this is that it allows me to laugh, if only a little bit, at their otherwise incredibly annoying treatment of FOIA requests, and those who make them. (“Army strong.” “Army say everything classified, you no see.” “Army ignore your request if come by email.” “Army deny, just because.” “Army strong.” “Army no need transparency, Army has might.” “Army just pawn in game of life…”)

#4: The United States Navy
Join the Navy! Travel to far-flung lands, meet strange and exotic people, and be the most mercilessly slow and unhelpful bunch of FOIA-processing nitwits this side of the FBI. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but, still…

#3: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence
They hardly handle any FOIA requests at all (see their annual statements); it shows. Apparently, if they don’t have what you’re asking for, they’ll tell you right away. If the do have what you’re looking for, it’ll be a cold day in hell before you get it, and let’s not even talk about the black hole into which any follow-up queries of yours might disappear.

#2: The United States Air Force
They try, they really do. Unfortunately, they create so many new and inventive ways of failing, the mind boggles, it really does. A ridiculous percentage of the FOIA-contact email addresses don’t work, there are whole huge branches of the service for whom no public FOIA contact information exists, and the folks at HQ won’t forward requests to other components for you. Sometimes they’ll tell you should send the request; many times, the people at that address disavow responsibility, and refer you back to – wait for it! – the folks at HQ. On those lucky occasions when you do manage to get your request to the right people, they’re either really nice and helpful, or behave like some sort of improbably cross between, well, three or four things that really aren’t very nice at all. Also, at some point late last year, they seem to have switched to a policy of “everyone is automatically considered a commercial requester and gets charged lots of money for everything unless they’re annoying enough to complain about it after the fact, because we said so”.

…and the number one most annoying FOIA agency for 2008 is:

#1 The Federal Bureau of Investigation.
I mean, really. Do I really need to go into just how much their FOIA handling sucks? No? Didn’t think so.

So, that’s that. Like I said, I don’t have a whole lot to share for Sunshine Week this year – but I do have something coming up on Friday that’s pretty damned awesome. (How awesome? Roughly Fulton Skyhook awesome.) And, if I’m not too busy helping save the free world, I’ve even got an FOIA log for 2008 or two to scan and share…

Published in: General | on March 16th, 2009| Comments Off on Ah, Sunshine Week

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