The State Department's computerized system for administering the Freedom of Information Act is "so riddled with wrong information that it is worthless as a management tool," Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.) has charged.
English, chairman of the Government Operations information, justice and agriculture subcommittee, leveled the complaint in an Aug. 5 letter to Secretary of State George P. Shultz that the subcommittee released yesterday along with a General Accounting Office report documenting the problems.
"This may help explain why the State Department has done such a poor job in complying with the FOIA," English said.
Auditors for the GAO encountered the system in attempting a comprehensive review for English of State Department handling of FOIA requests. English said he undertook the study, still to be completed, last year "because the State Department has the worst reputation among all Cabinet departments for the quality and timeliness of its FOIA operations."
Initially, GAO selected 193 cases from the department's computerized FOIA tracking system, hoping to use the random sample for its audit. The computer system was designed to show the status of FOIA requests, including the date they were received, searches for documents ordered as a result, document reviews that were undertaken and date the request was "closed."
The watchdog agency said it found so many mistakes in the computerized entries when compared with the actual FOIA case files -- an overall error rate of 16.2 percent -- that it could not use the system.
"In terms of cases, we found that 79 of the 193 cases, or approximately 41 percent, contained at least one error," GAO told English in the report. Particularly glaring, the auditors said, was the number of mistaken "completion dates." As a result, department officials were unaware that these requests -- 10 of which dated from 1982 and 1983 -- still needed attention. "In these instances," GAO said, "State did not fulfill the underlying principle of FOIA that individuals shall be provided access to public information or receive an explanation of any denial in a timely manner."
The report said officials at State "expressed concern about the extent of the errors we found" and will review procedures. GAO's comprehensive report is not expected to be completed until early next year, but English said he found the preliminary findings so "astounding" that he decided to release them now.
He urged Shultz to take immediate action to fix the tracking system and recommended "that the personnel responsible for managing the system be removed from their positions."
"There is no excuse for a management information system that has become useless because of a high error rate," English wrote. "If GAO's final audit reveals similar incompetence with other State Department FOIA operations, I will make a similar recommendation for other personnel responsible for FOIA administration."
An aide to English said Shultz has yet to respond.