The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has won the fifth annual Rosemary Award for the worst Freedom of Information Act performance by a federal agency. The FBI’s reports to Congress show that the Bureau is unable to find any records in response to two-thirds of its incoming FOIA requests on average over the past four years, when the other major government agencies averaged only a 13% “no records” response to public requests.
Given annually during Sunshine Week by the Emmy- and George Polk Award-winning National Security Archive at George Washington University, the Rosemary Award recognizes outstandingly bad responsiveness to the public that flouts the letter and spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. The Award is named after President Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods and the backwards-leaning stretch with which she erased an eighteen-and-a-half minute section of a key Watergate conversation on the White House tapes.
“The FBI knowingly uses a search process that doesn’t find relevant records,” commented Tom Blanton, the director of the Archive. “Not only does this woeful performance lead to unnecessary litigation, but the Bureau apparently uses the same searches in its criminal investigations as well.”
During fiscal year 2008, the FBI gave “no records” responses to 57% of the requests it processed, more than any other major agency. The Bureau only provided documents (most redacted) in less than 14% of cases — the lowest percentage of requests granted among the major agencies in the federal government. In 2007, the FBI responded with “no records” in 70% of its FOIA requests. In 2006, “no records” peaked at 74%; and in 2005, at 66% — the four-year average.
“Modern information processing uses search algorithms and full-text retrieval to find and rank search results,” said Blanton. “The FBI’s process in contrast is designed to send FOIA requesters away frustrated, and no doubt has the same effect on the FBI’s own agents.”
The Archive has tracked FBI and other federal agency FOIA performance for the last eight years through a series of government-wide audits supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Open Government Surveys produced a series of recommendations that Congress adopted in the OPEN Government Act of 2007, which requires more accurate reporting by agencies and more responsive FOIA processing.