Donald Trump shakes hands with FBI director James Comey during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in the Blue Room of the White House (January 22, 2017)
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longread / justice

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request

How a simple request became a bureaucratic nightmare.
The executive branch currently employs over 4,000 full-time employees to receive, process, and fulfill FOIA requests. To better understand the costs involved in maintaining such a massive bureaucracy, I decided a few months ago to submit requests for information about spending on FOIA fulfillment to the 14 offices of the most requested department: the Department of Homeland Security, which in 2016 received 325,780 FOIA requests. Expecting a maze of arcane terms, legal citations, and byzantine postal requirements, I gave myself a few hours. When I visited, though, I found an FAQ section complete with videos, a primer on how to file a request, and a full directory of government agencies. On the directory page, when I clicked the logo for the DHS, a drop-down menu appeared giving the names of its component offices, and I chose the first one listed, the Headquarters and Privacy Office. Up popped the corresponding FOIA officer’s name, mailing address, phone and fax numbers, and email address, which I copied into Gmail. Then I was stuck.

Filing a request is intimidating in its simplicity. Though bureaucratic requirements are often complex and inflexible, they are at least formulaic, and the freedom to ask the government for whatever I wanted left me unsure even of the appropriate tone to strike: “Dear Karen” or “Officer Neuman”? I split the difference — “Ms. Neuman” — and paused again. The FAQ said that “any agency record” was potentially available, so could I just request the line-by-line budget for the 2016 fiscal year? Or should I enumerate all the possible costs of FOIA-related activities, such as those for personnel, search and retrieval, records duplication, office space, electricity, and internet bandwidth? Should I demand to know Ms. Neuman’s salary and attach a copy of the relevant legislation requiring her to disclose the information. Even when submitting a request using the online form provided, with its comfortingly recognizable information fields, the task still felt like a high-stakes icebreaker, the equivalent of someone asking, “What kind of music do you like?”
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