Air Force Audit Finds Agency Lacks Basic Systems to Comply with the Freedom of Information Act





A report issued by the Air Force Audit Agency that was released to the National Security Archive this week identifies significant mismanagement in the Air Force Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) program. The findings demonstrate a pattern of noncompliance with statutory timeframes to respond to records requests from the public and misrepresentations about the state of the Air Force FOIA program. In particular, the Air Force audit agency found that the Air Force:

* Did not properly track or record FOIA requests;
* Overstated the number of requests it received and understated its response times, leading to inaccurate reporting about its program to Congress;
* Failed to comply with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act requirements to include all frequently requested records in its Electronic Reading Room;
* Failed to inform all requesters of their appeal rights under the law; and
* Failed to notify interested third parties, such as government contractors, of the intent to release information.

"Four years after our law suit, and despite multiple court orders, the Air Force system remains broken," said David P. Dean, of the law firm James & Hoffman, P.C., who represents the Archive. "The facts, though stunning, speak for themselves. In 2005, we complained about 82 unprocessed FOIA requests that the Archive had submitted up to eighteen years earlier. Despite several court orders requiring the Air Force to complete processing and to create a functioning FOIA system, today six requests are still outstanding and the system is still dysfunctional."

The Archive's suit was filed in March 2005 and alleged that the Air Force failed to acknowledge FOIA requests, lost FOIA requests, failed to process requests, tried to discourage the public from pursuing FOIA requests, failed to respond to inquiries about the status of the requests, and let requests languish while records were destroyed or transferred to other agencies. The Archive's lawsuit resulted in a court decision in 2006 finding that the Air Force had a pattern and practice of not processing FOIA requests in accordance with the law. At that time, the court noted that "the Air Force only woke up in May 2005 to its need to fulfill its FOIA obligations on a more timely basis..."

Since that time, and as a result of the lawsuit, the Air Force has instituted numerous changes to its FOIA program, including:

* Committing to training all Air Force personnel about the agency's FOIA obligations;
* Committing to posting all released records in its Electronic Reading Room and linking all of its Electronic Reading Rooms;
* Putting in place a centralized database system that will track FOIA requests from initial submission to completion; and
* Receiving FOIA requests online through its FOIA web site.

"While we are extremely glad that our litigation has forced the Air Force to bring its program closer to what the public is entitled to expect under the law, we are concerned that these small changes are not sufficient to bring about the transformation that is needed at the Air Force," commented Meredith Fuchs, the Archive's General Counsel. "The Air Force has not yet addressed its problems with interagency referrals and consultations--which has proven to be a significant black hole--and it has not yet gotten the old, long pending requests into its new tracking system." Ms. Fuchs concluded, "If the Air Force is going to enter the new era of transparency promised by President Obama, then it is going to have to shift its culture to one that appreciates the agency's legal obligation to keep the public informed about its activities on their behalf."


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