The Pentagon’s $660 million FOIA fee

Secretary of Defense estimates that scouring contract data would take “15 million labor hours”

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

For the last year, MuckRock user Martin Peck has been using FOIA to perform tech audits at various federal agencies, asking for counts of various devices - such as radios - that they might possess. It was his request that led to the DEA disclosing that they had two KingFish cell site simulators.

Peck was looking something only a little less controversial than cellphone trackers when he hit his biggest snag. Back in September, Peck asked the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the number of its HotPlug devices - used in computer seizures to keep the device powered on and preserve the data - they had purchased or were in use. This week, they finally got back to him, and boy did they have something to say:

There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s break it down, bottom to top.

  • The $660 million fee estimate is nearly 500 times our previous record, and will likely hold that dubious title for quite some time.

  • 15 million labor hours breaks down into 625,000 days, or a little over 1,712 years. So assuming one DoD employee started working on this nonstop tomorrow, they’d finish somewhere in the summer of 3728. To put that in perspective, if they started on year zero, by the time they were done, they’d only have to wait 20 years to hand off the work to an infant George Washington for safekeeping.

  • Finally, the idea that DoD can’t search their digitized contracts - therefore creating the need for the labor and associated cost - is problematic for a couple reasons. First, here at MuckRock, we know a thing or two about scans of paper copies, and running those through even a rudimentary OCR is pretty simple. The fact that they’re allegedly not doing that somewhat defeats the purpose of digitized archives. Second, there’s got to be a better way to preform this search than a brute force look through all their contracts.

And apparently there is, because when Peck asked a different agency inside of the DoD …

They were about to track down that number without much difficulty.

Now, the DoD OSD rather presumptuously assumed that Mr. Peck was without the financial resources of a mid-sized nation state, and administratively closed the request, leading to this moment of FOIA form letter zen:

As for Peck, we’ll leave him with the last word.

Read the full fee letter below, or on the request page.


Image by Lance Cpl. Tia Dufour via Wikimedia Commons