The Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA) turns forty this 4th of July. In these past four decades, FOIA has been indispensable to journalists and historians trying to peer inside the workings of government. But, as it turns out, many obstacles still stand in the way of FOIA fulfilling its promise. The biggest one is time. According to a report issued by the National Security Archives today, FOIA requests often languish for months, if not years, in backlog. The oldest pending request has been awaiting a response for twenty years. Sixteen requesters have apparently been waiting for over a decade and half. The CIA’s “family jewels” documents, released last week, were requested in 1992.
These are some of the more extreme cases and certainly not the norm. But it is indisputable that the initial stipulation in the 1967 act – that responses to requests would be issued within twenty days and documents be provided in a timely manner – is not being met.