This past week, there have been a lot of unusual side-effects as a result of the government shutdown. Numerous government websites have been either scaled back or completely shut down, and just about all agencies have scaled back normal operations that aren’t considered critical.
However, it might be surprising to some readers to know that there are some unforeseen consequences for researchers who make frequent use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain information otherwise hidden from the public. According to John Greenewald of the FOIA warehouse of formerly classified documents known as The Black Vault, government agencies have started to stall all FOIA requests until the government shutdown is over.
The Freedom of Information Act is a law that insures the public’s right to access information of the Federal government. The law was first enacted in 1966 and provided the public with full access to all federal agency records, unless those records are exempt from disclosure by meeting one of nine exemptions or one of the three law enforcement exclusion rules. It isn’t easy for any government agency to evade disclosing information to the public if it is not classified or doesn’t meet the rules of exemption, but during the government furlough, all of those agencies seem to have a temporary reprieve from fulfilling their responsibilities under FOIA law.
FOIA is On Furlough
While there are certainly plenty of nuisance requests from an element of wing-nuts that constantly request government information about UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot and crop circles, there are also legions of professional researchers that are conducting important historical research into past activities of the federal agencies.
Most researchers that have been in the field for long enough start to recognize a regular pattern within agencies to try and evade FOIA requirements by either naming or classifying documents in ways that might keep them exempt from disclosure, or not creating a document trail at all, if possible. FOIA work is also viewed by many within agencies as a low position within the “totem pole”, and so those that fulfill such requests are usually not in any big hurry to complete the queries, despite the fact that Federal law mandates a response to FOIA requests within a certain time limit.
The government shutdown has offered every FOIA officer in every government agency a bit of a reprieve from those requirements.
FOIA Request? You’ll Have To Wait
According to Greenwald, the stonewalling tactics are just a small part of the larger effort by government agencies to create drama out of the entire government shutdown. This is evidenced by the fact that government websites are all posting huge, bold disclaimers that the government shutdown will cause the said website to become outdated. In some cases, the Agency has even made a great show in taking the website completely offline, as though government funds are critically needed to keep the web server active.
Greenwald experienced stalling tactics firsthand, when he received an email on October 1, advising him that “due to the Government shutdown everything is on hold”.
In another email on the same day, another letter from the military advised Greenwald that since “we are furloughed starting today, it’s hard to tell when we’ll get around to processing your request”.
The comment reflects somewhat of a disregard for FOIA laws. Greenwald explains that he isn’t surprised by the actions.
“It’s not surprising that government FOIA offices and departments have shut down and suspended operations. They, just like the national parks and monuments, are obviously ‘non essential.’ Do I agree with it? Of course not! But am I surprised? Not at all!
However, Greenwald explains that he’s disgusted by the politics and the drama agencies are creating surrounding the shutdown.
The way I see it, there are a lot of politics at play, but we know the government will probably open within a week or two. So the whole dramatic show of ‘we are closed’ and not processing requests is a waste of time and money. I wonder how, with no staff, they were able to send out those letters in the first place? I wonder, if they can send those letters out, why don’t they just continue to process requests? They are still staffed, even minimally, so why waste the time, money and effort? Who knows — like with many things in the government, I simply don’t get it.
Drama aside, John makes a fair point that the FOIA requests are usually an extremely long process anyway, so the delay won’t cause an extreme hardship for researchers.
Bottom line, the delay with the government’s closure, presumably short lived, should theoretically only cause a delay as long as the shutdown itself. So when FOIA requests sometimes take months or even years to process… What’s a few more weeks?”
Indeed – what’s a few more weeks? But one thing that’s for certain is that long after the agency websites are back up and running, and the politicians are back in their comfortable chairs making laws again, Americans will not forget the politics, the drama, and the games that the government played – seemingly against its own people.
Those in leadership think they are the tail wagging the dog. Little do they know that a growing majority of the American public see through the facade – and are not fooled.