Pulling Down the Curtain

FBI Moves To Limit Public Access To Public Information

Posted by Dale Eisman on February 24, 2017


The Federal Bureau of Investigation is the nation’s most important and arguably the world’s most respected law enforcement agency. Its 35,000-plus special agents, analysts and other employees are critical to keeping Americans safe and upholding the rule of law.

“On any given day, the FBI is rooting out public corruption, recovering stolen art, protecting corporate trade secrets, taking down organized crime networks, and much more,” the bureau asserted in an annual compilation of “facts and figures” published in 2015.

But there’s at least one federal law the FBI apparently is none too eager to abide by. The bureau announced recently that it’s closing down the email address it has provided for journalists and other citizens seeking records it is supposed to make available to the public under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The records can still be obtained, the bureau insists. But as of March 1, reporters, researchers and others interested in getting copies to keep up with the bureau’s work will have to use fax or snail mail, or submit their requests through an online portal that is still under development. And the portal will only accept certain kinds of records requests, the bureau has announced.

“It’s hard to see this move by the FBI as anything other than an attempt to make it more difficult for the public to access information about the agency, as is our legal right under the Freedom of Information Act,” Elizabeth Hempowicz, policy counsel for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told The Daily Caller News Foundation earlier this month.

Ryan Shapiro, a FOIA researcher, sued the FBI last summer alleging “failure by design” in the way the bureau responds to requests for its records. In another Shapiro suit, a federal judge ruled that the FBI “unlawfully and systematically obscured” information about its FOIA process. Both cases are still pending.

“I think there are still significant questions and issues that need to be answered and resolved,” Adam Marshall, a lawyer for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told The Daily Dot website. “I think [email] is the most ubiquitous form of communication. And the government should be doing everything it can to make it easier for people to request information -- not harder."

The FBI’s move follows similar policies, some longstanding, at the CIA, the IRS, and several other agencies. And it promises to worsen the bureau’s already shoddy record of responses to FOIA requests. “We’re concerned that this is the start of a dangerous trend to shroud government activities from public view and is another indication of the new administration’s hostility to reporters and the public’s right to question information about how government operates ,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn.

At the end of the 2015 fiscal year, the last year for which full records are available, the FBI had a backlog of more than 2,600 unanswered requests and acknowledged that it was taking an average of 124 days – more than four months – to answer new requests. Across the federal government, agencies reported a backlog of nearly 103,000 unanswered FOIA  requests, so the FBI is far from alone in its sluggish approach to FOIA compliance.

Common Cause has been instrumental over the years in securing and strengthening state and federal FOIA laws. While the statutes are used most frequently by journalists, they provide access to government records – records gathered at taxpayer expense and documenting how taxpayer dollars are being spent – for every citizen. That makes them a cornerstone of any serious effort to hold government accountable.

“FOIA is incredibly valuable,” Hobert Flynn said. “But it’s really just a first step toward making our government truly transparent. Federal and state agencies ought to be doing everything possible to post public information on public websites, so citizens can access it without having to file a FOIA request."

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: More Democracy Reforms, Media and Democracy

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