FOIA Update: Administrative Corner

January 1, 1999

FOIA Update
Vol. XIX, No. 4

Administrative Corner

In this issue, FOIA Update inaugurates a new feature devoted to the administrative considerations that are involved in the administration of the Freedom of Information Act. Entitled "Administrative Corner," this column is designed to highlight good examples of FOIA administration, on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with a suggestion made during Attorney General Janet Reno's appearance at a major Justice Department training session held this past year (see page 1).

Case No. 1: A FOIA requester recently sought all records maintained by the FBI about various "cult groups" during the 1960s. Such a request ordinarily would require the expenditure of an enormous amount of FBI resources in processing the responsive records. Because thousands of document pages were responsive to this request, the FBI advised the requester of estimated duplication fees to be assessed for the records to be disclosed. The requester then sought a fee waiver from the FBI, which the FBI denied, and he appealed this denial to the Office of Information and Privacy.

In adjudicating this administrative appeal, OIP reviewed the records to determine whether they met the statutory criteria for granting a waiver of fees. While reviewing these records, the administrative appeal reviewer noticed a 200-page summary of such records that an FBI agent had compiled long ago. The reviewer thought that this summary could save the requester many hours of reading through records that were largely duplicative and collateral, not to mention the fees involved. So the reviewer contacted the requester by telephone and gave him a detailed description of the summary. Based upon this, the requester agreed to accept the summary in lieu of thousands of pages of records on the subject -- thus saving many hours of FOIA resources while providing the requester with what best fit his needs.

Case No. 2: A representative of the news media sought all records maintained by the Justice Department pertaining to a former congressman. Upon receipt of this request, the FOIA officer for the Department's Office of Legislative Affairs promptly contacted the requester to explain that a very large volume of records were potentially involved and to ask if the requester would be willing to narrow the request in one way or another. During this initial discussion, the requester eliminated any correspondence involving constituent matters.

The records from the time period during which the congressman served were maintained at the Federal Records Center, where 18 boxes of potentially responsive records were maintained. Rather than retrieving and searching through all 18 boxes, the FOIA officer conducted a sample search of four boxes. Upon completion of that search, she again contacted the requester to describe the records that she had retrieved. At that point, the requester further narrowed the scope of his request, specifying only four subject areas in which he wished searches to be undertaken -- thus allowing the searches to be conducted in a far shorter amount of time. This approach benefitted both the requester and the agency.

 

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