Swartz Update: An Inside Look at the Secret Service and FOIA

A quick update on the Aaron Swartz FOIA request.

There have been several court filings related to Wired magazine Poulson’s FOIA case, regarding the investigative material for the court case against Aaron Swartz. Poulson walks the talk on transparency, and provides links to all of the documents. I’m also preparing a docket sheet with links to the court documents. (Duplication aids transparency.)

One of the documents is a status report (PDF) filed by the Secret Service. In it, we see the state of FOIA requests within this agency. It gives us a good idea of how overwhelmed government agencies are with FOIA requests—especially after Sequestor cuts. The problem of overwhelmed FOIA resources is compounded by the fact that non-profits and other organizations will sue an agency if a FOIA request isn’t met within the 20 days.

The Poulson court case is different, in that he was denied access to the documents, and the agency didn’t respond to the appeal. But I know of several lawsuits filed by organizations just because the agency (typically the EPA) hasn’t responded in 20 days.

We have to remember that transparency comes with a cost. I’m not saying the results aren’t worth the costs, but we can’t pretend that all of this open goodness doesn’t come without a price tag.

From the document:

The United States Secret Service (“Secret Service”) employs less than 1,800 nonoperational personnel service in administrative positions. The Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts (“FOI/PA”) Office of the Secret Service, when fully staffed, recently had eleven (11) personnel who are assigned to redact and process FOIA requests, including reviewing documents to determine what, if any, information should be withheld under the FOIA. Due to government-wide budgetary reductions, the Secret Service FOI/PA Office was forced to cut two staff positions which has left the FOI/PA Office with only nine personnel that are assigned to redact and process FOIA requests.

The Secret Service is currently processing three other voluminous FOIA requests which require the full-time, exclusive attention of two of the agency’s nine FOIA processors [emph. added] In the case of one of these two requests, the FOIA processor has been working on it, full-time, for two years. This leaves seven FOIA processors to complete the remaining FOIA requests which come to the office.

In fiscal year 2012, the Secret Service FOIA/PA Office received approximately 1,595 FOIA requests. To date, for fiscal year 2013, the Secret Service FOI/PA Office received approximately 1,138 FOIA requests. The Secret Service FOI/PA Office, in one week, from July 15 – 19, 2013, received 234 additional FOIA requests. To date, the Secret Service FOI/PA Office has 1,001 pending FOIA requests.

One FOIA request that requires a full time employee for two years. Time to dig around and see which FOIA request this is.

Documents Legal, Laws, and Regs

Initial Complaints from the Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak Court cases courtesy Marler Clark

Bill Marler, of Marler Clark, has posted links to court complaints the law firm has filed because of the Cantaloupe Listeria outbreak in 2011. This was one of the most significant food illness outbreaks of modern times.

I could wish more law firms would post their legal filings, especially those at the state level that are difficult to access outside the state. Yes, most of the documents are legalese, but many court filings are plain, factual descriptions of events of importance—without embellishment and opinion. Many court documents reflect historically important decisions that can have a significant impact on our society.

Court documents can also contain subtle humor, eloquence, as well as brilliant examples of wit and logic.