President Obama’s “most transparent administration ever” is being accused of “failure by design” in the DoJ’s protocols for responding to public requests. The FOIA law states that agencies must “make reasonable efforts to search for the records in electronic form or format,” but as The Guardian reports, a new lawsuit alleges DoJ intentionally conducts inadequate searches of its records using a decades-old computer system when queried by citizens looking for records that should be available to the public.
In an effort to demonstrate that the DoJ does not comply with this provision, Shapiro requested records of his own requests and ran up against the same roadblocks that stymied his progress in previous inquiries. A judge ruled in January that the FBI had acted in a manner “fundamentally at odds with the statute”.
Now, armed with that ruling, Shapiro hopes to change policy across the entire department. Shapiro filed his suit on the 50th anniversary of Foia’s passage this month.
Foia requests to the FBI are processed by searching the Automated Case Support system (ACS), a software program that celebrates its 21st birthday this year. The FBI’s chief technology officer during the second George W Bush administration, Jack Israel, said he was unimpressed with the system in a Q&A cited in Shapiro’s complaint with the now-defunct site FierceGovernmentIT.
Not only is the interface archaic, but the way that you search data, the way you input data, all of those are archaic, wrote Shapiro in his complaint. Indeed, in 2012 a DoJ commission headed by Webster himself investigating the 2009 Fort Hood shooting called ACS “the FBI’s most outdated system”, noting that “[i]t is being phased out in favor of an impressive Web-based successor, Sentinel”.
More recently, the FBI’s own investigation into the September 11 attacks found that “[o]n September 11, 2001, the Bureau’s information technology was inadequate to support its counterterrorism mission”, noting further that “[t]he FBI’s legacy investigative information system, the Automated Case Support (ACS), was not very effective in identifying information or supporting investigations”.
Not only are the records indexed by ACS allegedly inadequate, Shapiro told the Guardian, but the FBI refuses to search the full text of those records as a matter of policy.
When few or no records are returned, Shapiro said, the FBI effectively responds “sorry, we tried” without making use of the much more sophisticated search tools at the disposal of internal requestors.
“The FBI’s assertion is akin to suggesting that a search of a limited and arbitrarily produced card catalogue at a vast library is as likely to locate book pages containing a specified search term as a full text search of database containing digitized versions of all the books in that library,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro told the Guardian that the reason the DoJ gave for refusing to use its $425m Sentinel software to process Foia requests after ACS had failed to recover records was that a Sentinel search “would be needlessly duplicative of the FBI’s default ACS UNI index-based searches and wasteful of Bureau resources”.
To Shapiro, this is both disingenuous and evidence of the well-documented resistance to this law at the DoJ.
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But then again, we can look forward to Hillary Clinton’s ‘transparency’ to take care of all this, if/when she becomes president.