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FOIA Facts: The Importance of FOIA, Part 2

By Scott A. Hodes, Published on February 7, 2006

Last year, I wrote an article about the importance of FOIA. FOIA, as well as other disclosure statutes, continues to be important to both our current national discourse and the future historical discourse.

Major current events will continue to be greatly affected by the FOIA. Much of the analysis of Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftermath will result from information released from FOIA requests (and at the state level, from the various state public records acts).

For example, the judging of FEMA’s actual performance will be measured by actual FEMA records, which will be releaseable to the public via the FOIA. Americans will be able to determine for themselves what FEMA did (or did not do) before and during the storm. These actual documents will tell FEMA’s story, and allow the public to determine if Brownie and associates actually did a heck of a job.

And the same will hold true for the Army Corps of Engineers. All of its correspondence seeking funding and engineering studies pertaining to the levees protecting New Orleans should be, if they aren’t already, released pursuant to the FOIA. I hope that the FOIA officers at the Army Corps of Engineers act in the public interest and also release the deliberations of the agency concerning its plans to deal with both the levees and budget problems to see who, be it the agency or the administration, or both, were short sighted in protecting New Orleans.

Requests have already been made to the EPA for statistical data about the pollution caused by the flooding in New Orleans. This information will allow the public to know just how toxic the environment is in the storm ravaged region.

Many requesters will complain about the pace of agency response to their FOIA queries. While I am the first to proclaim the importance of FOIA, requesters need to be realistic about agencies abilities to answer these requests in a timely manner. Records from field offices located in the Gulf Coast region will be difficult to retrieve and process in the near future. The agencies that have these records are also the agencies attempting to conduct the clean-up and relocate, feed and house evacuees. Thus, I think requesters need to be understanding if their requests are not processed within the 20 day working days stated in the statute.

This, however, does not give license to these agencies to stall and refuse disclosure of this important information. As these documents allow the public to see what government is actually doing, which is the actual purpose of the FOIA, agencies need to release as much material as possible as soon as possible. Otherwise, the public will only grow more cynical on its view of the federal government.

As a side note, Richard L. Huff, a Co-Director at the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy for the last 20 years, is retiring this month. I worked for Dick for over six years in the 1990s and am proud to call him a mentor and a friend. I know I am speaking for the entire FOIA community when I say he will be greatly missed by access professionals. I wish Dick good luck in his retirement and hope he keeps in touch with the FOIA community in the future.

[Editor's note:  HoustonChronicle.com Editorial, September 19, 2005, The EPA should keep journalists and the public informed — especially during and after a disaster.]