Semper FOIA: How a faulty hard drive delayed a Marine Corps request by nearly six years

Even the most technologically advanced fighting force on the planet is at the mercy of the Geek Squad sometimes

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Beryl Lipton

Jason Smathers is one of MuckRock’s earliest users, signing up shortly after our launch five years ago. One of his first requests was to ask a large sampling of Department of Defense agencies for the five oldest FOIAs currently being processed as of the time of his request - December 2010 - to get a better sense of what sort of docs people were looking for and how long the agencies were taking to get them to them.

Some, like the Defense Logistics Agency, got back responsive documents within a matter of months.

Others, such as of the Office of the Secretary of Defense experienced severe delays, but still came through - on MuckRock’s fifth birthday, no less!

Then there’s the US Marine Corps. Things got off to a shaky start, but as of September 2013, it looked like we had gotten things on the same page

Unfortunately, other than some automated messages, that was all we heard from the USMC FOIA office until the end of last month. According to their response, they had located the responsive documents in an external hard drive where all FOIA requests older than two years are stored.

This particular external hard drive stopped working months ago and is currently being repaired by an outside entity. Oh, and there’s no clear estimate on how long those repairs will take.

Two takeaways from this. One, in FOIA, even the most seemingly straightforward requests can take turns you’d never expect. And two, just because you’re the most technically advanced fighting force in the world doesn’t mean you don’t have to call the Geek Squad every now and then.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending - five months after that update, the USMC did manage to fix their drive, and they released their five oldest requests, with the oldest being a Defense Intelligence Agency referral for a National Security Archive request from 2002.

Which means we had to wait six years to find out that somebody’s been waiting 14 years. If there’s a more apt distillation of FOIA’s essence, we haven’t found it yet.

Read the full release embedded below, or on the request page.


Image by John F Williams via Wikimedia Commons