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FOIA Update: FOIA Focus: Connie F. Ahrens

FOIA Update
Vol. IV, No. 2

FOIA Focus: Connie F. Ahrens

With the enactment of the 1974 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, there came a need for a new personality in the halls of government: the FOIA document analyst. Document analysts are the "front line troops" who process the more than 250,000 FOIA requests that pour into federal agency mail rooms each year. Their work involves the meticulous, sometimes tedious, line-by-line review of federal records.

Their fingers stained with traces of ink from an "el marko" excision pen, a bottle of bleach at the ready, FOIA analysis post their walls with sayings impugning their own sanity and cartoons reflecting their odd lot in life. File folders of requested documents line their desks, fill their chairs and overflow onto their floor space. You would probably never mistake a FOIA analyst for anybody else.

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At the Headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there are now more than 230 employees processing an annual workload of approximately 15,000 FOIA requests. The majority are the "front line troops" -- the document analysts.

One of these is Connie F. Ahrens, who joined the FBI's FOIA operation in August 1975, just as the first wave of FOIA requests resulting from the 1974 amendments began to flood in. Previously, FOIA work at the FBI was handled by a handful of persons. But many broadening revisions in the 1974 law changed all that.

"In 1975, we were just trying to get organized," says Connie. "But there was nothing to build on. Those really were the days when we invented fire and the wheel. When I began, I started by working on the [Ethel and Julius] Rosenberg request. I just sat down and opened the file and made notes as to what documents were in the file. I was lucky, I learned how to process a case from an analyst who was very, very good. It was a good thing . . . it wasn't until two years later that I received my first formal training in FOIA processing."

Today, Connie is one of the most senior document analysts at the FBI and has adapted her own timesaving procedures for handling cases. Whether processing major matters like the Martin Luther King assassination records or smaller requests -- "chip shots" in analyst talk -- she is never too far from her marking pens and bottle of bleach. (Applied with a cotton swab, bleach removes marker ink. FBI analysts use bleach as a time-saver to restore a document portion mistakenly blacked out. The result, while a bit hazy, copies legibly.)

"The first thing I do when I'm assigned a case and the folder comes to my desk is to become familiar with the material," Connie explains. "You might get right to the end and find that everything has become public. Then I begin to make notes. Little scratchy types of notes, or whatever. They keep you organized, if you keep track of them. Then you just go through the documents, page-by-page, line-by-line."

When a document analyst finishes a FOIA matter at the FBI, he or she turns it over to a senior analyst -- such as Ahrens -- who proofs the work before it goes to the final supervisory level. In some cases, other divisions of the Bureau will have to be consulted and additional personnel will review the work before a release is made.

Much of the FBI's work involves investigatory files and it is up to each analyst to use his or her good judgment in applying the law enforcement exemption, Exemption 7. "One thing you have to remember with Exemption 7 is that a confidential source is a confidential source and always remains so. Nothing, including the age of the case or the death of the source, changes this," says Aherns.

Connie Ahrens came to the FBI fresh from high school, a member of a class of recruits who started at the Bureau in August 1971. She held a series of clerical jobs until the opportunity to work with the FOIA presented itself. It's a move that she's never regretted. She enjoys the work, likes to process documents, and she is still a part of "Team D-1," her first assignment. Connie's team also includes three other veteran FOIA analysts who have worked on some of the Bureau's most difficult FOIA requests -- such as for the Kennedy and King assassination records. They know these subjects and one another so well they communicate in an abbreviated "FOIA-ese" language.

This April, Connie marks her fifth anniversary with one of the more voluminous and challenging FOIA cases, the files on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though she did not have the advantage of handling the matter right from the beginnings -- a luxury prized by FOIA analysts -- she was with the case during the hot litigation years, 1978-1981, when there were frequent court hearings and affidavits to be filed. "It seemed to me we were in court about every 30 days and once I know I drafted eight affidavits in 20 days. I think I must have handled a ton of paper on that case. For three or four years I did virtually nothing else."

Ahrens clearly prefers her present situation in which she has about 25,000 document pages in a variety of cases to process, but she nevertheless has accepted assignment cheerfully to the "JFK special." A "special" at the Bureau is a big case with relatively short deadlines -- one in which the primary analyst cannot possibly handle the processing in the time allowed, so other analysts have to be pulled in to help.

The "JFK special" is a case involving all of the FBI records pertaining to the House Assassinations Committee's investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy. The number of pages involved exceeds 300,000 and the Bureau has projected that it will take 12 person-years to process them. Connie was one of several experienced analysts drafted. "I just came back from lunch at the wrong time," she says.

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Updated August 13, 2014