With the Coronavirus grinding everything to a halt (except for stock market losses! [sobs in 401(k)]), it’s understandable that public services would be affected as well. The unexpected shift to telecommuting means everything is going to slow down as public and private entities figure out how to still serve customers/citizens while still keeping the spread of the virus to a minimum.
But none of that explains this completely incomprehensible response from the FBI, which appears to be using the virus as a way to become even more tight-fisted with its stash of FOIA-able files. “FOIA terrorist” Jason Leopold reports the FBI is seeking to serve the public in the worst way possible during this national health crisis.
A message posted on the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act website Tuesday says:
“Due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, the FBI is not accepting electronic Freedom of Information/Privacy Act requests or sending out electronic responses through the eFOIPA portal at this time. You may still submit a FOIPA request via standard mail. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding.”
Left unexplained by the agency is how sending out snail mail — which could conceivably carry a bit of COVID with it — is preferable to email requests, which can only infect others if they insist on opening sketchy attachments.
This is also against the law, unless the administration decides it’s going to suspend FOIA law until the it’s declared safe to act sane again. The regulations governing FOIA responses say all federal agencies must have the capability to “receive requests electronically” either via email or their FOIA portals. It appears the FBI has simply chosen to ignore its online portal and its capability to receive emailed requests.
Even if lower staffing levels might result in slower responses, the agency’s virus response shouldn’t be to switch off the online portal and direct everyone to another government service that itself might be negatively affected by the virus in the near future.
But there’s more to it than this inexplicable explanation for shutting down the internet-friendly side of its FOIA services. Those bothering to send snail mail shouldn’t expect responses, either.
Katie Townsend, the legal director for the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, told BuzzFeed News that in a FOIA case she is litigating, an assistant US attorney filed court papers Tuesday saying the office that handles the FBI’s FOIA requests is “closed at least until March 30, 2020 because of the current coronavirus outbreak.”
This has been confirmed by other attorneys involved in FOIA litigation with the FBI. The regulation-dodging statement on the FBI’s website doesn’t inform requesters that the FBI won’t be touching any requests for the rest of the month. The FBI — through its lawyers — insists this all very logical because FOIA response personnel can’t work from home due to security issues. Even if so, encouraging people to climb into an FOIA time machine to take them back before the internet was a thing isn’t helping anyone but an agency that would rather not answer FOIA requests at all.
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