The FBI stunned me today.
It has quietly implemented changes that should significantly increase the chance that people requesting FBI documents under the Freedom of Information Act will actually find something useful. And it has done so in a way that actually lessens the burden on such requesters.
Regular readers of this blog -- all three or so of you :-) -- will know that I've made heavy use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in my phone phreak history research. One of my most frequent pen pals for these requests has been the FBI: at last count I've submitted about 300 FOIA requests to them.
This has caused me to become a reluctant expert in FBI FOIA procedures (for example, see here and here). And I've learned that the FBI makes you jump through flaming hoops to have any chance of getting the records you're looking for. For example, you need to know certain magic words (like asking for a search of the "manual indices") or else they only search for your requests in their computerized database... which would be ok if their computerized database went back further than 1973! And you need to know to send requests not just to FBI Headquarters but also to any or all of the 56 FBI Field Offices that might have had something about the topic you're investigating. (To its credit, if you jump through the right hoops, the FBI seems to have been pretty good about searching for records, at least in my experience.)
Well, today I got back a FBI FOIA request acknowledgment letter that mentioned the FBI conducted a search of "our central records system at FBI Headquarters and all FBI field offices." Huh?! I didn't even ask for a search of all field offices. So I called David P. Sobonya, the FBI FOIA Public Information Officer, to ask if something had changed.
Mr. Sobonya said that as a result of Attorney General Holder's FOIA memorandum the FBI has improved its FOIA search procedures. The FBI will now automatically search the records of both Headquarters and all FBI Field Offices with one simple request to Headquarters. This should dramatically increase the chances of finding goodies while simplifying life for the FOIA requester. In addition he said that they will now automatically search both the automated and manual indices, whether or not a requester asks for it. Finally, he said they are now accepting emailed and faxed Privacy Act requests (whereas before they only accepted them via snail mail).
This is excellent news and should be a big improvement for FBI FOIA accuracy and ease of use. Kudos to the Department of Justice and FBI for taking this important step.