Journalists and concerned citizens file hundreds of thousands of Freedom of Information Act Requests each year, and government officials continue to find new and unique ways to avoid complying.
Each year since 2015, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit dedicated to free speech and transparency, publishes The Foilies, a list of the “year’s worst in government transparency.” The 2019 list contains some doozies, but perhaps none more absurd than what happened to ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman:
ProPublica reporter Jessica Huseman has been digging deep into the child welfare system and what happens when child abuse results in death. While following up on a series of strangulations, she requested a copy of a case file from the St. Joseph County Superior Court in Indiana. Apparently, the clerk on the other end simply took the entire file and ran everything through a scanner. The problem was that the file contained a CD-ROM, and that’s not how CD-ROMs work. “Well this is the first time this had happened,” Huseman posted to Twitter, along with the blotchy black-and-white image of the top of the disc. “They scanned a CD as part of my FOI and didn’t give me its contents. Cool cool.”
That’s right, the clerk sent her a photo of a CD-ROM but not the contents within. There are plenty of examples of ridiculous redactions in FOIA requests, but that’s certainly a novel idea.
In another example of government employees using CD-ROMS to annoy reporters who filed FOIA requests, EFF described an episode in which the CIA sent someone six discs containing eight documents – each just three to nine pages long.
Kel McClanahan, executive director of the nonprofit public interest law firm National Security Counselors, filed a request an expected eight documents. The CIA sent him the six discs containing the small documents, which could have easily fit on one.
“What makes this ‘extra silly,’ McClanahan said, is that the CIA has previously complained about how burdensome and costly fulfilling requests can be. Yet the CIA could have easily combined several requests onto the same disc and saved themselves some time and resources. After all, a standard CD-ROM can hold 700 MB, and all of the files took only 304 KB of space,” EFF reported.
Many of the other “awards” were for some serious transparency issues, like the city of Seattle telling a man he could have the information he sought for $33 million, or Michigan State Police trying to charge another report $485,645.24 – 25 cents for each line of a 1.9-million-line dataset.
One last silly example: The Federal Communications Commission tried to avoid a FOIA request for emails relating to Chairman Ajit Pai’s YouTube video “7 Things You Can Still Do on the Internet After Net Neutrality.” After some legal wrangling, Muck Rock editor JPat Brown was able to get the unredacted emails released. They showed that Pai wanted to know when the video would be live and that the FCC wanted to be able to ax the video. Oh, and one redaction literally covered up the word “OK.”