Sunday, August 29, 2010

State Dept's Gay Iraqi Violence Files:

No Release Date

An analyst in the State Department's Freedom of Information Act/Public Affairs Bureau called me recently to give me an update on the status of my request from July 2009, for all records pertaining to violence and torture perpetrated against Iraqi gays.

Some background first. In June 2009, veteran gay journalist Duncan Osborn pried loose nine pages from State on the topic and he reported on the content of the pages in Gay City News. It took nearly two-years from when Osborn filed his FOIA to the release of the skimpy number of pages.

Prodded by his request, I filed my own with State, asking for additional years' worth of records on anti-gay attacks in Iraq, thirteen long months ago. I'm still waiting for the department to tell me an estimated number of pages located and when any will be released.

The last contact I had from State was a letter in April, responding to my letter asking for release of all relevant files:

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.

The recent phone call from the department was an exercise in government runaround. The analyst couldn't say how many pages were being reviewed or when they'd be on their way to me. She just wanted me to know that my FOIA has not been forgotten, but due to the high number of requests ahead of mine, I shouldn't expect anything released in the near future.

One key piece of information she shared clarified why, in my experience and that of other FOIA filers such as Duncan Osborn, State takes an obscene amount of time to review and release records.

For highly sensitive matters, such as anything dealing with Iraq, extra oversight is needed and even though the records I want have passed through two levels of review, there is one more look-see needed. There are just two reviewers, and they only come to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Ain't that somethin'! A key federal agency, with an extraordinary number of FOIA requests to handle annually, lacks enough reviewers to evaluate documents and get them out to requesters in a timely fashion. This bottleneck that took almost two years to spit out the nine-pages obtained by Osborn, and is now hindering release of records located responsive to my request, is a dark blot of non-compliance with the letter and spirit of FOIA.

Compare the State Department extreme dawdling with the less-than two-months it took me, from time of filing to release of files, to make a FOIA request under UK law with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and obtain 51-pages of relevant pages from London.

It should not take State more than 2-3 months to receive, search, review and release records, and if it does, then State should request additional funding from Congress hire more reviewers, and insure FOIA requests take much less than a 1-2 year timeframe to be resolved.

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