WASHINGTON - The Freedom of Information Act requires a federal agency to provide an initial response to a request within 20 days and to provide the documents in a timely manner. But the oldest pending request uncovered in a new survey of 87 agencies and departments has been awaiting a response for 20 years, and 16 requesters have been waiting more than 15 years for results.
The survey, to be released on Monday, is the latest proof of a fact well-known to historians and journalists who regularly seek government documents: Agencies often take months or years to respond to requests for information under the law, known as FOIA, which went into effect on July 4, 1967.
"The law is 40 years old, and we're seeing 20 years of delay," said Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University. The group, itself among the most prolific requesters under the act, conducted the survey with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The survey will be posted at nsarchive.org.
The survey found that 10 federal agencies had misrepresented their backlog of FOIA requests in annual reports to Congress, misstating the age of their oldest pending request. It found that the State Department accounted for most of the oldest unanswered requests, with 10 requests filed in 1991 or earlier still awaiting responses. (The State Department declined to comment, saying officials had not yet reviewed the survey.)
The public interest in some aging government documents was vividly illustrated last week, when the Central Intelligence Agency released the so-called family jewels, papers that described illegal wiretaps, assassination plots and other agency misdeeds from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. The documents were the subject of front-page newspaper reports and extensive television coverage.
The papers were first requested by the National Security Archive in 1992, and a cover letter accompanying the C.I.A. release identified that request as the intelligence agency's oldest still pending.
"Please be assured that we do not consider acceptable a delay of this duration," said the June 25 letter from Scott Koch, the agency's information and privacy coordinator. Mr. Koch wrote that the intelligence agency was trying to clear out its oldest requests as part of an effort to speed compliance with the law, and added, "this case was, in fact, the oldest in our backlog."
But in response to the survey, the C.I.A. on June 20 had identified an even older pending request - one dating to 1989, also filed by the National Security Archive, seeking information about the Iran-contra affair.
The oldest pending requests came from a broad group of filers. The very oldest request was sent May 5, 1987, to the State Department by lawyers for the Church of Scientology seeking any information the department had gathered about the church or about cults.
Other aging requests came from USX Corporation (a 1988 filing seeking information on the Luxembourg steel industry), the Armenian Assembly of America (looking for information in 1989 on the Armenian genocide during World War I) and the United Automobile Workers (from 1991, seeking information on policies regarding South Korea).
A bipartisan bill to force agencies to respond more quickly and completely to FOIA requests, sponsored by Senators John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Patrick M. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in April. But another Republican, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, has put a hold on the bill, in response, in part, to concerns from the Justice Department that the bill might force the disclosure of national security information.
In the meantime, the authors of the survey, itself conducted using FOIA requests sent in January, cannot be certain they have found the oldest pending requests. Some 26 of the 87 agencies surveyed never responded at all, according to the National Security Archive.
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