Politico has this on the rapid increase in the State Department's FOIA backlog - I really believe this goes well beyond FOIA Operations staff. State Department Management needs to address the issue by rapidly increasing resources to the FOIA staff. Readers of this blog know I've offered suggestions on things they can do (create a special task force outside of FOIA to address the records issue emails, hire actual FOIA trained personnel from outside State Department to process FOIA records, etc...). Problems at this agency have been around for over a decade and span numerous presidential administrations - this is the culmination of what occurs when non appointed but high level agency management fail to pay attention to FOIA matters.
Attendance is going fast for the ASAP National Training Conference in Arlington, Virginia on July 18-20. Those agencies with training money for 2016 have no better value than this event. Registration details can be found here.
The National Law Review has this summary of the changes to the FOIA in the new law. Rumor has it that the law will be sent to the White House in time for a signing to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the FOIA on July 4th.
Update: The bill has been sent to the White House and the timing will allow it to be signed on July 4th.
Update: The House has passed the Senate's FOIA bill and it is now on its way to President Obama.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has posted his weekly legislative schedule and it has the Senate's FOIA Amendments on it. The House may consider the bill today and if it passes the Senate version of the bill without any amendments, the only thing standing between the bill and law will be the President's signature.
Open the Government has a letter signed by a number of public interest organizations asking the Senate to adopt bi-partisan amendments introduced by Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) that would remove certain parts of the National Defense Authorization Act that would exempt certain information from the FOIA. The post and letter can be found here.
The amendments seek to strike the FOIA exemptions especially the provisions (Sections 1054 and 1055) sought by the Department of Defense. Section 1054 would exempt “information on military tactics, techniques and procedures,” from the FOIA, and the language in this section has been read to be able to conceal information about the military’s interrogation and treatment of prisoners, handling of sexual assault complaints, oversight of contractors, and other matters of compelling public interest. Section 1055 (b) would exempt from disclosure information held by State and local governments related to critical infrastructure security. Aside from disliking the exemptions themselves, the groups' letter stresses that amendments to the FOIA should come through the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction of the FOIA not through the appropriations process.
The Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network has this from a conference call with Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). Grassley told the reporters that he is in favor of keeping agriculture checkoff program documents staying subject to FOIA as he believes government documents should be public.
Some groups in the agriculture industry have been trying to get these documents (think the Got Milk or Pork the Other White Meat campaigns) to be exempt from the FOIA. A House committee had this exempting language in its latest appropriations bill but Sen. Grassley and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) have made statements against the provision.
The American Society of Access Professionals (ASAP) currently has registration open for both its National Training Conference (NTC) to be held in July 18-20th in Arlington, Virginia and its FOIA/Privacy Act Training Workshop to be held in Chicago on September 7-9th. More information for these great programs can be found here. ASAP FOIA training is second to none and provides many different viewpoints on government disclosure.
[Ed. Note - I'm Past President of ASAP, the chair of the Chicago workshop, and will also be leading a couple of sessions at the NTC].
All politics aside, the Hillary Clinton email issue raises interesting FOIA issues. As this Politico article discusses, the Republican National Committee has a request for a number of emails sent by State Department aides of former Secretary Clinton. The number of responsive documents is enormous and according to the State Department would take years to process.
Thus, how to process giant requests without harming those requesters who have standard size requests which already are not done anywhere close to the statutory time period? It has been and remains an issue within the FOIA community. In the case of the Clinton aide emails, State has attempted to get a drawn out schedule to process the material and seek a narrowing of the request from the requesters. It's ironic that both the State Department and the Republicans have failed to properly seek to fund FOIA operations for years.
Irony aside, it seems to me that in cases where there are huge amounts of records, agencies should seek special funding and take these out of the FOIA process altogether - they can then process these records under FOIA guidelines but in a parallel office that doesn't affect the other FOIA requests sought at the agency. This was done at the FBI for JFK documents in the 1990's and was similarly done at the IRS for congressional subpoena's on the tax exempt organizations issue. In other words, agencies need to think outside the box when confronted with large requests.