How long does it take the FBI to process a typical FOIA request?
January 30, 2008 8:47 PM   Subscribe

How long does it take the FBI to process a typical FOIA request?

In early October I submitted an FOIA request about a deceased person. I received acknowledgment and a file number in early November, but I haven't heard from them since. The decedent definitely has an FBI file, but is not a well known public figure.

It's been nearly three months since I've heard from them. Is this typical? How much longer should I expect to wait?

I've searched on Google and have been unable to find any useful information. I've seen a few mentions of having to wait years(!), but nothing solid. Help!
posted by omarr to Law & Government (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, I pulled this info off the FBI's FOIA web site (actually, off the DOJ page that the FBI linked to):

" Under the statute, all federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within twenty business days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays. This time period does not begin until the request is actually received by the FOIA office of the Department of Justice component that maintains the records sought. An agency is not required to send out the releasable documents by the last business day; it can send you a letter informing you of its decision and then send you the documents within a reasonable time afterward.

Some components of the Justice Department, such as the FBI and DEA, receive thousands of requests each year. Many of these requests require a line-by-line review of hundreds or even thousands of pages of documents. Although the Justice Department makes every effort to respond to FOIA requests as quickly as possible, in some cases it simply cannot do so within the specified time period. This may be due either to the size of the request or to the fact that the component has a backlog of previously received requests that are awaiting processing. Some components use "multi-track" processing queues to deal with their heavy FOIA workloads; components' descriptions of their multi-track processing systems are contained in Attachment C.

Under the FOIA, a component may extend the response time for an additional ten business days when: (1) the component needs to collect responsive records from field offices; (2) the request involves a "voluminous" amount of records that must be located, compiled, and reviewed; or (3) the component needs to consult with another agency or other components of the Justice Department that have a substantial interest in the responsive information. When such a time extension is needed, the component may notify you of this in writing and offer you the opportunity to modify or limit your request. Alternatively, you may agree to a different timetable for the processing of your request.

When a determination on your request is not made within the applicable time period and you have not agreed to a different response timetable, you may file suit in federal court to pursue a response. If, however, the court concludes that you have unreasonably refused to limit your request or to accept an alternate timetable for response, the court may find that the component's failure to comply within the statutory time period is justified. The court may excuse the lack of a timely response if the component demonstrates that it has a backlog of requests that were received before yours, that it processes its requests on a first-come/first-served basis, and that it is making reasonable progress in reducing its backlog of pending FOIA requests. In such cases, the court may postpone its consideration of your lawsuit until the agency reaches your request in its processing backlog.

Alternatively, under Executive Order 13,392 (Dec. 14, 2005), FOIA requesters also may contact an agency's FOIA Requester Service Center(s) to check on the status of their FOIA requests. As mentioned above, the Department of Justice has established such a center for each of its 40 components, with a FOIA Public Liaison named for each, whom FOIA requesters may contact by telephone if they are dissatisfied with the response of the component's FOIA Requester Service Center. (The individual names and telephone numbers are listed, on a component-by-component basis, in Attachment C.) FOIA requesters are strongly encouraged to make use of these new services that are now available to them."

So it looks like it's taken too long, and you should contact them. Of course, the FBI has already received over 1900 requests for FY2008, so I would safely assume there's a pretty heavy backlog going on. Still, you might call these numbers: FOIA Requester Service Center: telephone number (540) 868-4591 or FOIA Public Liaison: Nancy L. Steward, telephone number (540) 868-4516, especially the former.

Whew, this is huge. Hope it helps.
posted by librarylis at 9:07 PM on January 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I can't speak specifically to the FBI FOIA requests, but it can definitely take a very long time for the ones I've had experience with, for the DoD and for State.

At DoD, I've had one that took three months, one that took two, and one that is still pending after more than a year. At State, it doesn't take as long, normally. I've had some things in a matter of weeks, all the way up to about six months.

My anecdotal theory is that the time it takes depends on a lot of things, ranging from who is processing your specific request, the current workload, and the sensitivity of the materials.

I would suggest that you contact the FBI public information officer and ask them the question. As long as you are respectful, I find that most government people will be happy to help you get a sense for how long something will take. If they know, that is. You might even be able to get a specific timeline for your specific case.
posted by gemmy at 9:08 PM on January 30, 2008

Working with a newspaper who did a couple of these, they usually turned them around right on the 20th day. That they've taken much, much longer with yours probably just means a backlog, not malice, and that's probably the best assumption to start with when corresponding with the FBI over the matter. But now's the time to make sure that you document everything about your request and your interactions with them, so that you can raise hell more easily later.

Strangely enough, the Department of Education and HUD were the two worst agencies that I've dealt with regarding FOIA requests—the FBI and DoD were pretty decent, if officious.
posted by klangklangston at 10:24 AM on January 31, 2008

It may also be affected by the age of the materials—with the DoD, we had much better luck getting older files, strangely (I would have figured they'd be more likely to be antiquated media filed oddly).
posted by klangklangston at 10:26 AM on January 31, 2008

Thanks everyone. I left a message for the FBI's FOIPA Public Information Officer. Hopefully she can tell me what's going on with my request. I'll post here if/when I hear anything.
posted by omarr at 1:08 PM on January 31, 2008

Since it's clearly overdue at this point, you may also be able to get things moving quicker by requesting assistance from your local congresscritter's office.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:16 PM on January 31, 2008

I got a voicemail back on Monday afternoon. She stated that my request is in the redaction/sanitization stage, and that she doesn't have any details about when it might be done there, but that she thought it might be a few more weeks. It's not what I was hoping to hear, but at least it's something.
posted by omarr at 12:49 AM on February 5, 2008

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