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.
A 2002 General Accounting Office study found that "agency backlogs of pending requests are substantial and growing government-wide." An average of about 10 weeks' worth of requests remained unfilled at any given time at two-thirds of the 25 agencies the GAO surveyed. Agency officials blamed the problem on increasingly complex requests and a lack of staff and computer expertise to help fill them.
A GAO update last year found that agencies received and processed 2.3 million requests in 2002, at a cost of $283 million. Nearly two-thirds of requests were to the Department of Veterans Affairs, largely because veterans' inquiries about their medical records count as FOIA requests. About 4,900 full-time federal employees handled FOIA requests government-wide that year. The backlog of pending requests, not including those at the VA, decreased by about 23 percent in 2002, the GAO found.
Contractors who have performed FOIA work for federal agencies include CACI International Inc. of Arlington and McNeil Technologies of Springfield. FOIA Group Inc., a 16-year-old D.C.-based company that helps businesses and nonprofits submit FOIA requests, plans to diversify by moving into processing such requests for agencies, said Jeff Stachewicz, a founder of the firm.
"That is going to be the wave of the future," Stachewicz said, citing the Bush administration's policy of moving more government work to private contractors if they can do the work better and more cheaply. "For many years, agencies thought they could not delegate this type of function to private contractors."
McNeil, which also offers services such as translations and records declassification, has been especially active in FOIA work. Over the last eight years, the company has landed contracts totaling more than $10.5 million to perform FOIA work for such clients as State, Defense, Transportation and TSA.
About 50 to 60 McNeil analysts, some of them former government FOIA officers, are doing FOIA work for agencies in any given week, said Tim Ayoub, McNeil's director of information access programs. Those who handle classified information have security clearances, but others need no special credentials other than training in performing the work, he said.
The analysts are involved in nearly every phase of answering a FOIA request -- retrieving documents, reviewing them for relevance, blacking out portions that pose security concerns and composing a response. But it is government officials who make the final decisions on what is released, Ayoub said.
"We do it all for them up until the decision point, and then the government takes over," Ayoub said.
Ayoub, who joined McNeil in 1997, said he learned the shortcomings of the government's FOIA system when he was a command chief at the Naval Historical Center. Handling FOIA requests was just one of his "collateral" duties.
"There is a real need to service the public out there, and obviously the government can't get it done right now," Ayoub said in an interview. " . . . Very few agencies are staffed at the right level to do an adequate job."
According to GAO figures for 2002, average processing time for pending requests was longer than one year at eight agencies, including the Agency for International Development, the CIA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture, Justice, State, Treasury and Interior departments.
Will Kammer, FOIA chief for Defense's Directorate for Freedom of Information and Security Review, said his agency hired two McNeil analysts three years ago to supplement its staff of 18. The agency plans to expand that number to eight in a contract that will pay McNeil $1.1 million a year, according to the company, which says it cut the agency's backlog by 20 percent.
"We are very pleased with the contracting effort," Kammer said. "It has resulted in a reduction in the backlog, which is exactly what we wanted it to do. . . . The backlog that the contractor has been working on, it's a backlog for a reason -- because it's a complicated request."
Federal officials and contractors said there is little chance that full disclosure would be sacrificed in pursuit of speedier responses to FOIA requests. Federal supervisors review contractors' work and have final say on what is released, they note.
"All of their work is cleared and approved, and there is oversight by a TSA FOIA officer," said Yolanda Clarke, a TSA spokeswoman.
Moreover, the threat of lawsuits by requesters who are denied access to information provides an important check. Donald Kirkley Jr., a McNeil vice president, said the company has a reputation for quality to protect.
"I have never, ever counseled someone on low numbers, but I have terminated people for poor quality," Kirkley said. "It only takes one mistake to hit the street. . . . We'll be dead in the water."