FOIA Update: Attorney General Gives Openness Speech

January 1, 1996
FOIA Update
Vol. XVII, No. 3

Attorney General Gives Openness Speech

The following are excerpts from an address given by Attorney General Janet Reno at the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 17, 1996, in Washington, D.C.

I have appreciated the opportunity to work with the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which has led the way to help make our government more open and to make information more accessible and timely.

* * * * *

Thirty years ago, the Freedom of Information Act was created to give life to the fundamental premise of America's founding that we "meant to be our own governors."

How would we do that? "By arming (our)selves with the power knowledge gives," said James Madison.

On July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act with the observation that "a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits." He said, "No one should be able to pull the curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury."

It was a little bit easier then. The number of FOIA requests wasn't even recorded the first few years. In 1975, the Department of Justice received 30 thousand requests. Compare that, if you will, with 1995 when the Justice Department received about 125,000 FOIA and Privacy Act requests and had the equivalent of 617 people working full-time on the requests at an annual cost of over 35 million dollars.

A working reporter doesn't care how many requests we get or how much it costs to process them. I understand that. What you care about is when you are going to get your questions answered. That's the challenge, one that demands real solutions.

We have started trying to find them:

  • All but eight of the Justice Department's 29 subparts have significantly reduced their backlogs.

  • The others are on a reporting system that has significantly cut backlogs at places like the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Attorneys' offices.

  • Using our expedited FOIA procedure for records that have been requested by a widespread and exceptional number of news agencies, we are putting some extraordinary requests to the head of the line. Recent examples include:

    - The complete transcripts of the FBI's negotiations with the Branch Davidians at Waco;

    - Records dealing with alleged human rights violations in Guatemala;

    - And the Justice Department's command center logs during the Ruby Ridge incident.

  • Furthermore, we have made it a daily practice in our press office to try to accommodate requests from the news media for a single, easily retrievable document. We get it and send it to you as fast as we can. While judging its releasability under FOIA and Privacy Act standards, we don't even put it into the FOIA system.

  • We now release information on serious professional misconduct by Justice Department attorneys, even without a FOIA request. We have done that nine times in two years.

  • We strongly encouraged all Federal agencies to make discretionary releases whenever possible, and reexamined FOIA forms and formats, improving nearly all of them. In fact, we were so successful, the Department of the Interior, the Labor Department, the Air Force and the Environmental Protection Agency asked us to review their forms, too.

  • On top of that, we are now making FOIA performance part of the job description of every relevant Department of Justice employee and rating them on how well they do.

Is there more we can do, more that can be done with today's tight budgets? We are and must continue to think about ways to accomplish that goal.

The core purpose of FOIA is to let people know how their government works. Yet, today, relatively few FOIA requests have to do with what the government is doing.

The bulk of the requests come from individuals seeking information that the government is merely storing -- information about a business competitor, or a celebrity or historic figure, or simply to satisfy curiosity. Since the purpose of FOIA is to show how government works, surely we might give some consideration to creating different tiers, or tracks, to give priority to requests that have a broad, public purpose rather than a purely private one. That is a concept we already apply when considering fee waivers.

Should we give some thought to the burden we are placing on the system with complex litigation demands? At a time when the FBI is 5.6 million pages behind in processing FOIA requests, do we really want 29% of the FBI's FOIA time devoted to responding to what we call "Vaughn Index" demands, which are the detailed explanations we have to give the courts when you sue us for withholding something.

Should the size and complexity of requests be a factor? What do we do with a request, like the one we got from a reporter in Pennsylvania last Friday, demanding files responsive to 206 questions, some of them with dozens of subparts? The list of questions ran 11 pages! . . . [T]hat's why it is important for us to continue to work together. . . . The challenges to law enforcement are different and more complex than they were thirty years ago when the Freedom of Information Act was passed.

* * * * *

I always enjoy meeting with you, and I am grateful that you invited me to give this progress report.

Thank you.

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