CIA Tells FOIA Requester It Can Only Make PDFs By Printing Out Electronic Documents And Re-Scanning Them
from the no-tactic-is-too-stupid-when-it-comes-to-dodging-FOIAs dept
The Freedom of Information Act was supposed to make the government more transparent and responsive to its employers: the American public. The Act has indeed provided a level of transparency that wasn’t present before its enactment, but the law is also loaded with a ton of exemptions that make it easy for government agencies to dodge requests.
The Obama administration itself — the supposed “most transparent administration in history” — is one of the worst offenders. As Mike covered earlier, administration-directed agencies have abused these exemptions hundreds of thousands of times in the last five years. Even when the agencies have been “responsive,” they’ve still been mostly unresponsive. The FBI’s documents on warrantless GPS tracking were handed to the ACLU with 111 pages redacted entirely.
Many other documents are now the subject of ongoing lawsuits against the government for its refusals and redactions. Nearly every document cut loose by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been the result of a lawsuit brought by the EFF against the government for violating the Freedom of Information Act.
Secrecy News brings us the story of yet another lawsuit being brought against the government for FOIA-related ridiculousness. Jeffrey Scudder, a 23-year veteran of the intelligence community, is seeking 419 articles from the CIA journal “Studies in Intelligence.” He has specifically requested these be provided as “softcopy” (i.e., electronic files), which would only make sense, considering the amount of responsive documents. However, the agency has gone deliberately pants-on-head stupid to make this simple request an annoyance for everyone involved.
Mr. Scudder told the court that he has detailed knowledge of CIA information systems and capabilities. In his FOIA requests, he was able to inform the CIA FOIA staff “as to where within the [CIA] computer systems the electronically stored documents [that he is requesting] are located.”
However, CIA refused to release the documents in the requested electronic format. Instead, the Agency proposed to print them out and to release them only in hard copy, ostensibly for security reasons.
Citing “security,” the CIA decided it would only comply if it could fell a small forest. Obviously, this route is a complete inconvenience for everyone involved. I’m sure the CIA would have preferred Scudder simply drop his request after being confronted with the agency’s insistence on performing this task in the least efficient way possible. (Government agencies often tend to less efficiency, especially when it’s in service of sandbagging FOIA requesters, who are expected to pick up the tab for the agency’s wasteful tactics.)
Scudder refused to take boxes of paper for an answer and requested again that the CIA keeps associated costs down by grabbing the electronic files and burning them to a CD-ROM or two. The CIA responded to Scudder’s insistence by hitching up the belt on its head pants.
“The defendant [CIA] avers that if it were ordered to honor the plaintiff’s [FOIA] request [for soft copy records], it would have to print the existing electronic documents to paper and then rescan them into electronic documents so that they may be reproduced and released on removable media,” Judge Howell summarized.
Scudder politely called the CIA’s convoluted response process an “administrative gimmick” designed to frustrate the requester and impose “unreasonable financial burdens.” Judge Howell sides with Scudder on this.
“Congress anticipated that recalcitrant agencies would resist being responsive to requesters’ format choices,” wrote Judge Beryl A. Howell of the DC District Court last week, and so Congress required agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to accommodate requesters’ preferences.
She called the CIA’s process “Rube Goldbergian” and pointed out that, while the law requires responding agencies to make “reasonable efforts” to fulfill requests, that should not be taken to mean that agencies can simply employ convoluted processes in order to make responding suddenly “unreasonable.”
Scudder has also pointed out (via Howell’s opinion) that he has used the CIA’s classified system in the past to create PDFs, something the agency claims is beyond its capabilities. Despite this clearly being an issue of government agency stonewalling, Judge Howell hasn’t granted summary judgement to either side, citing both parties’ allegations of “bad faith.” However, she has granted Scudder’s motion for discovery, which means the government will once again appear in court to defend its refusal to follow its own laws.