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The FBI Says a Piece of Code Broke Its FOIA System

The episode shows that we are in need of a truly 21st century solution to freedom of information requests.

by Joseph Cox
Apr 4 2016, 4:00pm

FBI Director James Comey. Image: Drew Angerer/Getty

In February, activist Michael Best took a novel approach to filing a mass of Freedom of Information Act requests at once: he wrote a script to automatically ask for the files of just under 7,000 dead FBI officials.

The FBI has replied, and it is not happy. The agency has decided to not accept any of Best's related requests, and may have also blocked or otherwise filtered further emails sent to the agency's FOIA department by him. The episode shows that the way FOIAs are processed is very much an antiquated practice, and that perhaps US government agencies should think of new ways to handle requests.

"The FBI email portal is designed to provide a convenient, alternative means to all Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Privacy Act (PA) requestors [sic] to make requests for FBI records," a letter from David M. Hardy with the FBI's Records Management Division to Best, dated March 30, 2016, reads.

"On Monday, February 29, 2016, the FBI received an exceedingly high volume of submissions from you via the FBI email portal which had been generated by script [sic] using a list of names. This matter of submission interfered with the FBI's ability to perform its FOIA and PA statutory responsibilities as an agency. Accordingly, the FBI did not accept these submissions on February 29, 2016, via the FBI FOIA email portal," it continues.

Best's script was simple enough: It took names of special agents and other FBI officials collated from the agency's own "Dead List," a list of people the FBI knows to be deceased, and placed each into a request template. The request was for records held concerning the subjects, which can be released after the person is deceased. (For what it's worth, Best says he didn't submit his requests via the "email portal" as the FBI's letter states, but just sent them to the normal FBI FOIA email address.)

"I think the letter's vagueness is counterproductive," Best told Motherboard in a Twitter message. "'The manner of submission' could mean almost anything. The volume of requests, or using the script? If it's the former, I've never heard of an agency discarding FOIA requests because there were too many, and if it's the latter I don't see how the locally run script would have created a problem."

"I think FOIA offices need to adapt. How can they help proactively digitize more government information that might be of historical value?"

The requests weren't even "rejected," at least in the traditional FOIA context. Requests can be rejected if they are determined to be too burdensome on the agency. But that's not what happened here—the FBI didn't even accept the requests in the first place.

"I'd love to know what the interference was so I can avoid it," Best continued. "I know it's a lot of work for them and I don't want to make it any more difficult for them than it needs to be, but there's information that should be released."

Best also suspects that the FBI's FOIA department has blocked or otherwise filtered his email address. This is because the FBI has stopped acknowledging requests sent from it altogether, he claimed.

The FBI's Record/Information Dissemination Section did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails.

Other requests have been submitted to the FBI via automated means, however. Michael Morisy, founder of freedom of information tool Muckrock, pointed to "FOIA the Dead," a Twitter bot that automatically requests files for deceased persons (although that account has seemingly not been active since late last year).

"Shortly after the Snowden leaks, a number of FOIA automation sites launched, doing bulk FOIA by the thousands. While NSA's FOIA load did increase, it was only to a few thousand, not tens of thousands or more as you'd think with bulk filing tools," Morisy wrote.

Morisy thinks that, at a point, a certain number of requests would become interference. But Best's episode might be an indicator of the outdated nature of FOIA more generally.

"I think FOIA offices need to adapt," Morisy wrote. "How can they help proactively digitize more government information that might be of historical value? How can, 20 years down the line when someone files a bulk request for files, they be released with a few clicks instead of years of manual review? What kind of policies would a truly 21st century FOIA/public disclosure office have?"

In the meantime, Best is trying to find other ways to file his requests for dead FBI official records.

"If the Bureau is willing to work with me to help me get the requests filed in a way that doesn't overwhelm, that'd be ideal," Best said.

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