Category Archives: Department of State

A “Sensitive” (and expensive) Response from the State Department

Today a giant envelope from the State Department appeared on my desk. Inside the envelope was the response to my FOIA request for the agency’s report to the Archivist on records management.

First, I must say that I’m glad it only took about 5 and a half months to get the requested documents; my response came in under the average 155 working days, on average, it takes State to process a simple request. Other things about this particular response can easily be classified as “the good, the bad, and the downright mystifying.”

The Good

The requested report was released in full. State joins the ever-growing list of agencies that have declined to protect the report using exemption b5 (interagency documents). State also granted my fee waiver request.

The Bad

Did I mention that the report was mailed to me in a large envelope? As I do on all requests, I had asked for it to be sent to me electronically. State may very well have good reasons that it was not able to email me the records, but I would not know because they do not even acknowledge my request for an electronic version in their response. Adding insult to the injury is that State spent more than $16 dollars using registered mail to send me the copy.

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The Confusing

When I first opened the package I assumed it must be a response to some other request I have open. Why would a report on records management be marked (repeatedly) as “Sensitive?”

Sensitive But Unclassified is one of many markings currently in use throughout the federal government that has no basis in statute or government-wide policy. These markings, which also include the ubiquitous “For Official Use Only,” are commonly called CUI or “Controlled Unclassified Information.” Each agency has its own rules for what is stamped, and how that document should be handled. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), in response to an Executive Order by President Obama, is currently going through a process to streamline the markings. Once it is fully-implemented, stamps like the “Sensitive But Unclassified” one should be a thing of the past.

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Where are the Tracking Numbers?

We are about two weeks into this project now and are already getting final responses back from some agencies. Other agencies, however, have yet to acknowledge receipt of our request, much less give us a tracking number. Here are the agencies we have yet to hear from:

  • Homeland Security
  • Justice
  • Veterans Affairs
  • Social Security

We also still have not been given a tracking number by the Department of State, though we did receive a confirmation email.

Filing with the Department of State

We filed our request with the Department of State via online form on 10/5/2012. We received an automatically generated email confirming our request; it included no new information.