State Department’s FOIA processing time: A blistering 37 years


The State Department has located 135,000 records in response to a Freedom of Information request demanding information about the medical and health problems that U.S. government employees reported in Cuba.
The James Madison Project and New Yorker magazine in February sued the State Department for disclosure of information about the supposed “acoustic attacks.” See Lawyer: U.S. should disclose secrets about “acoustic attacks.”
On May 1, State Department lawyers said they expected to produce the first batch of documents related to the FOIA request on May 9. The lawyers wrote:

Defendant is still in the process of searching for materials responsive to Plaintiff’s FOIA request and has located over 135,000 pages of potentially responsive records so far. Until the search is completed, a date for completion of the all processing cannot be meaningfully estimated at this time.

The lawsuit seeks disclosure of a State Department report on the so-called sonic attacks and other documents, including reports that may address any shortcomings in the government’s handling of the episode.
State Department lawyers wrote:

Defendant further anticipates processing an average of 300 pages of potentially responsive records each month and making future productions on or about the 9th calendar day of each month.

At that rate, it would take the State Department 13,500 days – or 37 years, working holidays and weekends – to process the 135,000 records the agency says it has found so far. And the agency says it is not finished looking for documents.
The State Department says it is looking at ways to speed up the processing time. Agency lawyers wrote:

Defendant notes that it can anticipate the need to make referrals to other government agencies with equities that could likely be affected by the release of the requested materials.
Defendant is also considering one or more possible proposals that might narrow the focus of materials, which it anticipates sharing with counsel for Plaintiff, if such narrowing is expected to materially speed the process of documents review. If the parties are able to reach an agreement on how the processing can be narrowed, Defendant proposes to notify the Court with the filing of a Joint Status Report.

The State Department proposed that the parties file a joint status report on the matter in 61 days.
U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed and ordered that the status report be filed by July 1.
The State Department’s strategy appears to be threaten to take forever processing the FOIA request to try to force the James Madison Project and the New Yorker to narrow the focus of their request. Such a tactic may help the government hide much of what’s in the 135,000 documents.

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