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The Clinton Emails and the FOIA Backlog

Americans are concerned former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent and received confidential and potentially security-threatening emails over an insecure server. The emails were released under the Freedom of Information Act, making this one of the most high-profile and extensive FOIA cases to date since FOIA went into effect in 1966. With FOIA requests rolling in, how efficient is our government at remaining transparent, and how can technologies help?

The State Department released tens of thousands of emails written by Hillary Clinton on her private server, and they’re all being searched for classified information to prove that no classified material was sent or received over the unsecured server. According to the Washington Post, so far 188 of those emails have come to light as containing redacted information, being deemed classified as a matter of national security. Since the use of her personal server was discovered, FOIA requests to release the content of Clinton’s emails have been pouring in, and the State Department’s response has been less than ideal. CBS News reports that so many FOIA requests are coming in that the Department of Justice will ask to have all related requests consolidated to the oversight of a single judge. Judges are also up in arms, with one judge involved expressing outrage at the State Department for its failure to release the emails in a timely fashion.

But the Clinton emails aren’t the only surge the federal government is encountering in processing FOIA requests. Each year, the Justice Department’s Office of Information publishes a summary of FOIA activity, and in Fiscal Year 2014, the 100 agencies subject to FOIA received a record-high number of requests at 714,231. The Department of Homeland Security alone received 291,242 requests, a 26% increase from the previous year and a 52% increase over the previous two years. And there’s little likelihood that we’ll see the number of FOIA requests start dropping, since FY 2015 is coming to a close and a sizeable backlog of requests sit unanswered.

There is no standardized process by which federal agencies must adhere for processing requests, and rightly so, since not all 100 agencies subject to FOIA have the same needs. However, a recent blog post from the Department of Justice emphasizes the need to manage the backlog and complete any outstanding requests before the closing of FY 2015. The post refers to a FOIA memo sent by President Obama, which stresses the use of modern technology to aid the process. One of the biggest time-drains in responding to FOIA requests involves redacting privileged information before releasing the documents requested. Unfortunately, the options for tools that will assist in this process are limited at the moment.

The growing rate of FOIA requests poses a real problem for the government if it wants to effectively maintain the transparency it so values. Our Blackout assisted redaction tool might be a good place to start, but one thing is certain, agencies must assess their needs and act quickly, because as this year comes to a close, it doesn’t appear the need to efficiently process FOIA requests will start slowing anytime soon.



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