On FOIA Front, More Agencies Contract Out
Private Firms Have Growing Role in Handling Backlogs of Requests for Government Records
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page A21
Steven Aftergood has waited so long for federal officials to answer his requests for public information that, he says jokingly, he may be in his grave before some of the documents land on his desk.
Aftergood, 47, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, is still awaiting responses to Freedom of Information Act requests for Air Force historical papers that he submitted in 1990. Government officials have blamed the delay on backlogs and problems in locating the records, he said.
"There is no end of difficulties," said Aftergood, who specializes in unearthing national security materials. "You almost expect them to ask you to designate a next of kin for when the document is ultimately released, because you won't be here."
Aftergood is hardly alone. Many people who have filed FOIA requests can tell stories of waiting months or years for responses.
These days, however, some agencies say they have found a new way to combat such delays. They are turning increasingly to private contractors to help shrink their mounting backlogs of FOIA requests.
Departments that have tapped contractors include Defense, State, Energy and Transportation, as well as agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration. Officials say outside help is necessary at a time when tight budgets make it all but impossible to permanently hire new FOIA officers.
"Congress puts ceilings on us on the number of billets we can have," said Larry E. Curry, a Defense official, referring to limits on full-time positions. "What we're trying to do is comply with the law and to try to improve the service to the public using contractors. No personnel have been replaced with contractors. So I think it's a positive thing. . . . You know, we get complaints all the time from the public that we're too slow in processing these things."
Despite some concerns that the government is becoming overly reliant on private contractors for basic work, the arrangements have drawn favorable reviews from some outside experts. And those seeking information are eager to see federal agencies fill FOIA requests faster -- as long as no materials are withheld unnecessarily.
Many contract workers "are former officials who retired from civil service that have got the background, and very often they still have an active [security] clearance," said William Ferroggiaro, a past president of the American Society of Access Professionals, a nonprofit group that works on FOIA issues.
Ferroggiaro said the contractors have done a fair job and he has not heard any complaints about their work. His only concern is that they may cut corners in filling requests in order to meet numerical targets set by agencies.
"It raises an issue that needs to be watched," he said.
Aftergood said it's unlikely more information would be withheld just because contractors are on the job.
"On balance, it's a good thing," he said, "because the truth is that the agencies on their own were not exercising good judgment. They were only moving more slowly."
Agencies get FOIA requests from many corners -- academic researchers, corporations, journalists, veterans and prisoners, among others. The law, which dates to 1966, is designed to make the bureaucracy more accessible and accountable to the public.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company