Monday, April 12, 2010

State Dept:
Gay Iraqi FOIA Update

Last June, longtime gay reporter Duncan Osborne wrote a story for Gay City News about his Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to homophobic attacks and violence in Iraq. Duncan's story gave the following facts:

Writing in Gay City News, Doug Ireland first broke the story in March of 2006 that Iraqi gays were being killed by death squads. Ireland and other gay press outlets continued covering the story in 2006 and into 2007, with the mainstream press offering occasional stories. The killings and the gay press reports on them have continued into 2009.

In September 2007 –– nearly two years ago –– Gay City News sent a Freedom of Information request to the State Department that sought all records “that relate to or identify homicides, assaults, or other violent acts committed against homosexual persons in Iraq.”

On May 26 of this year, the department responded, releasing two documents, totaling nine pages, that represent all the records that agency compiled from March 1, 2003, roughly the start of the Iraq War, through the date of the records request. No documents were withheld and only a small portion of the released documents was blacked out. [...]

I filed a follow-up FOIA since Duncan's request was for documents through September 2007, and much more violence against Iraqi gays happened after then. The State Department's FOIA office last contacted me in July 2009, stating they were looking for files responsive to my request. Nine months later, I asked the department for a status report. Here is the full reply:

Thank you for your inquiry into your FOIA request number 200904722. The Statutory Compliance and Research Division has completed the relevancy review of potentially responsive documents and material is now being prepared for official review. Unfortunately I cannot provide an estimate timeframe. This will depend on how many requests were received before this one, how much material there is, how sensitive the information might be, and how much, if any, coordination this office must initiate with other offices, bureaus, agencies, post, desk officers, or governments. For more information on the timeframe for processing FOIA requests, please see the Department’s FOIA Annual Report for 2009.

I hope this information is helpful. Please contact us if you need further information.

Yes, the info is vaguely helpful, but I wanted specifics, such as how many pages are being reviewed, estimate of when they'll be evaluated and released, etc, and the State Department gave no hint if they'll release anything to me or when. If nothing else, the reply is one more example of the slowness of this department in meeting its full obligations under FOIA.

A few weeks back, two U.S. Senators made a bipartisan effort to address this longstanding problem with delays in prying loose records through FOIA. From the New York Times editorial about improving release time:

Senators Patrick Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont, and John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, have introduced a bill that would push the bureaucracy to release information more quickly. It is an important and needed fix. [...]

Agencies are supposed to answer requests within 20 business days, but they often take far longer. [...]

Delays of months or years mean that information is often not available when it is needed to shed light on a current problem or controversy. Slow response times also discourage people from filing requests. [...]

The two senators usually find themselves on opposite sides of most debates. They deserve credit for putting partisanship aside and working to make a good law better. Most of all, they deserve credit for championing the principle that citizens have a right to know what their government is doing.

The Times editorial hits the nail on the head about needing our government to make timely releases of requested documents a priority. We gays need to know now, what our State Department has done about the torture and murder of gay Iraqis, since September 2007.

I will keep pressure on the FOIA folks at State to release whatever files they've located responsive to my request.

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