Category Archives: Department of Homeland Security

A Final Response from DHS – and thoughts on why all FOIA responses should be online

On February 6 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) granted my request in full, and emailed me the records. According to the response letter, the release is in response to the request I filed back in October.

Here is the report and response letter:

Bennett Final Response

As followers of this blog may remember, when I called to check on the status of the October request a few months ago, DHS said it had no record of ever receiving it and asked me to please resubmit the request. A call to follow-up on the re-submitted request revealed that DHS had found the original request and were already processing it.

The only outstanding issue at DHS now is what happened to the second request I submitted. Hopefully, DHS disregarded that request once it found the old one (though it would have been nice of them to at least notify me). At worst, DHS is still processing my second request and I may get another copy of the report.

Actually, at the VERY worst, DHS applies some exemptions to the report the next time it is reviewed and sends me a redacted version. An agency applying exemptions inconsistently to the same document is certainly not without precedence – our friends over at the National Security Archive have some great examples from the world of classified documents.

This brings me to another reason why by default all records the government releases under the FOIA should be available online. At least one of the reasons exemptions are sometimes applied inconsistently is that at most agencies FOIA reviewers have no way to know how other reviewers have treated the same document. If all of the released documents were online, reviewers could look to the records already online to see how exemptions have been applied to similar records.

Making all records released under the FOIA available online is a common-sense solution to addressing some (though clearly not all) of the public’s frustrations with the federal FOIA system. As we’ve discussed previously, it is good policy for the public because it means we can access more records without having to file a FOIA request, and it is good policy for the government because it will have to process less requests for the same document.

Agencies already participating in the FOIAonline service currently have the option of making records released under the FOIA available in a (somewhat) searchable central repository. We hope that agencies using FOIAonline start to make better use of this feature. Agencies do not have to wait to join FOIAonline to start making this a common practice, though. We hope that all agencies start to think about how they can make material released under the FOIA more accessible.

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Presentation at Collaboration on Government Secrecy Event: Transparency in the Obama Administration

During a panel at yesterday’s event held by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at the Washington College of Law, “Transparency in the Obama Administration: A Fourth Year Assessment,” I gave a presentation on my experiences thus far using FOIAOnline. During the presentation, I gave a range of grades for agencies using FOIAOnline and other agencies FOIA systems. Check out the slides from the presentation below.

Lost – and Found? – at DHS

As some of you may remember, in mid-December I called the DHS FOIA Customer Service Center to ask about my request because I had yet to receive a tracking number, or even an acknowledgement of my request. At that time I was told that there was no record of my request in the system, and was asked to please re-submit my request via email. Today I decided to check back in on my request with the Department of Homeland Security because I still had not gotten a tracking number, or any acknowledgement.

The good news? The FOIA Customer Service Center found my original request – according to their records, an acknowledgement letter had been sent out on October 16 – only a few days after I emailed my original request. It seems that letter must have been lost in the mail, however, since I have never seen it (and, by the way, I still don’t see any logic behind agencies answer FOIA requests submitted via email and explicitly requesting electronic copies of records in an electronic format with a paper letter sent via US mail). I even managed to get the tracking number assigned to the original request: 2013-HQFO-0091-JH.

The bad news? I still have no clue when I might actually receive a response to me request. I also have no idea why they could not find the record the first time I called the service center, or what happened to the second request. I’m also preparing myself to have to scan in any (hopefully) released documents before I can make them available for anyone else who might be interested in the text.

UPDATE: DHS finally emailed me a copy of the acknowledgement letter to my original request made on October 4 (still no word on the second request I submitted when DHS told me it had no record of my request in December…). I’m very glad to know DHS can email back requesters, but am all the more perplexed as to why they put the letter in the mail in the first place.

Annoyingly, the acknowledgement letter says that DHS will take additional time to process the request because my “request seeks numerous documents that will necessitate a thorough and wide-ranging search.” The request clearly seeks only a single document: we made such a significantly narrow request so that our project would not create an undue burden on FOIA offices.

We found similar language regarding “numerous documents” in the acknowledgement letter sent to us by DOD – when we called the FOIA processor to make sure there was not a misunderstanding about what we are seeking, he told us it was standard language they include in all letters. Using such language is disingenuous, at best, and – as our commenter Kel McClanahan has pointed out – not allowed under the FOIA.

Bennett Amy Ack ltr 1

Status Check, Please?

Over the past two months responses to more than half of the seventeen FOIA requests we filed with different agencies have trickled into our inbox (and onto our desks via hard mail). Two agencies, however, have yet to even acknowledge our requests: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration.

We decided to check on the status of the request at by calling DHS’ FOIA Public Liaison. Unfortunately, the number listed on the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) website, FOIA.gov, was out of service. Luckily, a working number listed on DHS’ FOIA page. DHS could not find any record of our request, so we re-submitted the request via email.

We left a message for the Public Liaison at Social Security, and will update you once we hear anything back.

Filing with the Department of Homeland Security

We filed our request with the Department of Homeland Security via email on 10/4/2012.