Freedom of Information Act 101

Back in June, I wrote about the Department of Homeland Security’s ongoing plans to improve their handling and processing of FOIA requests. As astute readers may recall, one of the steps in that improvement plan was the creation of “FOIA 101” instructions for all DHS employees. In sadly ironic fashion, a local researcher recently received a copy of these instructions in response to a FOIA request some seventy working days after asking for them – far beyond the 20-day target DHS aims for.

For the most part, the two documents released contain little that will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s at all familiar with the Freedom of Information Act. If you’re unfamiliar with the inner workings of the act, however, there are some useful references, like this “Lifecycle of a FOIA” chart:

One interesting bit of guidance that came as news to me is the following slide regarding “scoping”; the general wisdom has always been that you should narrow your request to be as specific and concise as possible, but DHS is now instructing, apparently, that entire documents are to be considered responsive, not just portions of them – even if so requested. There’s wiggle room, I suppose, in just what constitutes a “document” versus a “portion of a document”, but it still seems a little counter-intuitive:

The only surprise in the two documents – though it’s a big one – is also highly amusing, because it breaks, as it were, the unwritten rule that it itself sets out:

Don’t, this essentially says, put anything embarrassing in writing, because it can’t be exempted from release for that reason alone. Common sense, of course, but it’s a sad day when people have to be reminded – in writing – of the most fundamental of unwritten rules.

You can see the first presentation, by Catherine Papoi, Deputy Chief FOIA Officer of DHS, here (193KB PDF), and the second, by William Holzerland, Associate Director in the DHS Privacy Office, right here (461KB PDF).

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on October 22nd, 2007| Comments Off on Freedom of Information Act 101

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