TAKING ITS TIME

FBI Gets Six Years for FOIA Request

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The oldest reported Freedom of Information Act request in the federal government resides at the Justice Department and is 18 years old -- or, as the National Security Archive, a research group that tracks these things, likes to say, "old enough to enlist in the Army and go to Iraq."

So perhaps it should be no surprise that the FBI has just told a federal court that it will need until 2013 to process a request for information from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy organization. The group sued the Justice Department last fall under FOIA for records that detail how the FBI protects privacy while collecting hundreds of millions of personal records in its Investigative Data Warehouse, a database used for counterterrorism purposes.

The organization wanted to know how errors in records are corrected and outdated files are deleted, what privacy impact the system might have on U.S. residents, and the results of any audits performed to ensure the data system is working properly -- that is, to find bad guys and not invade the privacy of innocent Americans.

Last week, department lawyers told a federal court that Justice has documents that might answer that request. In fact, it has so many pages of documents that might fit the bill -- 72,000, according to a court filing -- that the FBI has requested the court to stop the legal proceedings and give the FBI time to comply: until February 2013.

The FBI, which has one of the worst records of timely FOIA compliance, will be able to process about 800 pages every four weeks, the lawyers said in the filing. It is even willing to release documents every four weeks, beginning in about three months, the lawyers said.

The electronic warehouse contains more than 659 million documents, including phone records, intelligence cables and pocket litter found on possible terrorism suspects when they are detained, say, at an airport.

Some of the financial and phone records were obtained by FBI agents using an administrative subpoena, which does not require judicial approval, or by just citing "exigent circumstances," according to a recent Justice Department inspector general report on the agency's use of national security letters.

Yesterday, the privacy organization filed another FOIA lawsuit against the Justice Department, this time seeking records about the FBI's abuse of national-security-letter powers.

-- Ellen Nakashima


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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