Dalglish: If by FOIA module you mean the “dashboard” under development by OIP at the Justice Department, I think they’re different animals. But, that said, I think everybody would be much better served if the Justice Department got used to the idea that OGIS is here to stay. There’s lots of intrigue going on there. I’ve always believed that Justice Department officials in charge of FOIA are angry because they believe the creation of OGIS took away some of their power. I get that. You know what? The creation of OGIS was intended to shift total control of FOIA from the Justice Department. That was the point.
Lynch: I think www.foia.gov was good or is good for what it is, in the sense that it was intended to be a central site where you could get a lot of statistics on FOIA requests, how agencies process them, and where to file FOIA requests. So, in that sense, it’s definitely a step forward from what we had before, when you had to go to every individual agency’s website. It doesn’t go very far in helping the FOIA requester in the sense that the EPA’s portal apparently will allow you to file your FOIA requests online, and let you can track them. Foia.gov certainly doesn’t let you do that.
Anything new with the OGIS recommendations in the OMB?
Dalglish: Not that I’ve heard.
Lynch: I don’t know what’s going on with that OGIS. We have never used OGIS, because if we don’t get a response to our FOIA requests, we tend to sue the agency.
What should the federal government be doing better in terms of FOIA issues?
Dalglish: There are so many things on this list, I can’t count them all. But here are a few ideas: 1. Assume that FOIA is just a cost of doing business and make it easier for agencies to spend money on it. 2. Invest in the technological infrastructure. (In this regard, the Obama folks aren’t too far off.) If you assume that when a document is created it is going to be available, you can have more of an affirmative “post it” system in place, versus a “hunt in the archives, photocopy, and mail it” system. And, to be fair, the requests the Reporters Committee have made in the last couple of years have been responded to much more quickly and thoroughly than just five years ago.
Can you shed any light on OGIS director Miriam Nesbit’s diplomatic lack of response, when asked by Sen. Leahy at the March 13th Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, about which federal agencies are the worst in processing FOIA requests?
Dalglish: I have no first-hand knowledge regarding this question. But my gut feeling is that one of two things may be going on: Ms. Nisbet feels she can’t afford to alienate anyone in the agencies right now, particularly as she’s trying to set up some mediation services with them. Or, this information may also be in the report that OMB refuses to release. She may be under orders to let her report speak to this issue, and it’s being held up. But, obviously, she does not feel she can speak freely. Miriam is a skilled public servant, and a lovely person, so it pains me to watch this whole thing.
Lynch: I don’t know how much of it is Miriam’s personality. I think she’s an incredibly diplomatic person, personally, and so it could just be that it’s who she is. It could also be that OGIS’s role has been to be a sort of a mediator for FOIA disputes, and I think if you’re acting as a mediator and you don’t have any real authority to make an agency do anything, then the last thing you want to do is to upset anybody. So that’s how I might read that, I’m not sure.
Any important FOIA-related issues or advocacy on your radar this year?
Dalglish: I have a hunch the political conventions and the NATO Summit are going to keep us hopping. We’ve seen an astonishing number of reporters and photographers arrested for doing their jobs recently. We recently published this pullout to provide guidance to journalists on how to handle themselves at protest scenes, and what to do if they get arrested. As always, we’ll have our volunteer local lawyers on the ground to assist journalists in Chicago for the NATO Summit and in Tampa and Charlotte for the political conventions.