This week, MuckRock contributor and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) researcher Emma Best made an interesting discovery about the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) FOIA search process and took to Twitter to announce her as-yet-not-completely-confirmed finding: the FBI has been failing to conduct searches in compliance with their FOIA responsibilities and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been signing off on it.
/1 Wow, so it looks like I just caught FBI and DOJ in a big lie about how they search for records while processing #FOIA requests.— Emma Best (@NatSecGeek) October 19, 2017
FOIA veterans familiar with the FBI’s search procedure have long advised that extra specificity be provided in requests to the agency, which includes detailing that the search should extend to databases outside of the Bureau’s Central Records System (CRS). These other parameters should include “cross-referenced” records and a look for FBI’s Electronic Surveillance System (ELSUR) records. As Emma mentions in her tweet thread, the FBI, which receives thousands of FOIA requests a year, has developed a reputation for limiting its searches to just locations explicitly mentioned in requests, and, allegedly, have to be prodded even then.
/3 I always appeal these things, because that's just how it goes. FBI rarely does a real search and often just bluffs. Late last year though— Emma Best (@NatSecGeek) October 19, 2017
It’s recommended that requesters, in general, appeal the integrity of the FOIA responses, and Best notes that some such appeal responses from the DOJ include a note particularly addressing the ELSUR search - or additional lack thereof.
/4 I noticed something new in DOJ's responses to appeals. "Any CRS search automatically encompasses ELSUR. No separate search is required." pic.twitter.com/JGXLd0IhGI— Emma Best (@NatSecGeek) October 19, 2017
As a follow up, Best submitted another request in February of this year, asking that any materials confirming the automatic inclusion of ELSUR searches in conjunction with CRS inquiries.
But a response received last week states that there are just no materials responsive to this request.
According to Best, this would have been an easy opportunity for the Bureau to provide some backup to claims they’d consolidated and made more efficient their search processes. But the response - which now will require its own sort of appeal - provides no substantiation at all that FBI’s search process is as they and the DOJ Appeal Authority say.
We’ve reached out to the DOJ office in charge of adjudicating appeals and are currently awaiting a comment or explanation. Have you had your own negative experiences with FOIA requests at the FBI and DOJ? Let us know on Twitter via @MuckRock.
Image via FBI.gov