FOIA, Email, Clinton, and the State Department


Clinton speaking at the Brown & Black Presidential Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, January 11, 2016.A recent piece of FOIA news was brought to my attention by Ann Snyder over at the Information Governance Initiative. The legacy of Hilary Clinton running her own email server is growing. It seems that the U.S. Department of State has stated that it will take 75 years to release the emails of Hilary Clinton’s aides from her time as Secretary of State.

Let that sink in. 75 years. Not days, YEARS!!!

They then go on to give some outrageous estimates based upon processing only 500 pages per month. I’ve been working with the Federal government for years and have worked on many FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) systems. To understand how ridiculous this is, let’s examine an agency where I’ve been looking at FOIA closely this year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).

USCIS Knows Big

I’ve been helping USCIS on-and-off for 9 years on various projects. Recently they’ve been considering getting a new FOIA processing system. They’ve had to make sure the industry understands the volume of requests that USCIS processes. Here are some numbers, from their 2014 Annual Report (PDF), 2015 Annual Report (PDF), and some industry briefings I attended.

  • USCIS receives 25% of the U.S. Federal government’s FOIA requests.
  • In 2014, USCIS received 143,793 FOIA requests. That increased 13% to 162,986 in 2015.
  • In 2014, USCIS processed 141,700 FOIA requests. That increased 6% to 150,897 in 2015.
  • In 2015, 65% of all processed requests (97,411) required a full or partial response. That was down slightly from 2014’s 67%.
  • In 2014, USCIS processed 20,787,828 total pages for FOIA requests, an average of 220 pages per response.
  • In 2014, USCIS referred 1,860,356 pages to other agencies for review.
  • The largest USCIS FOIA response was over 43,000 pages.
  • In 2014, the average response time for simple requests was 30 days while complex requests took 37 days. In 2015 those numbers were 25 and 54.

That is a lot of information that is reviewed every year. The volume is growing, faster than USCIS’s ability to respond, increasing the request backlog from 5,026 to 16,247 in 2015. This restricts their ability to collect fees for processing FOIA requests because the increasing backlog makes it take longer to respond to a request. When they take too long they cannot charge a fee.

The State Department’s Numbers

The news story states that the U.S. Department of State (DoS) can only process 500 pages per month. I do not care how complex a request is, 500 pages per month is a ridiculously low number.

I decided to look at the public record. I did a quick search and found the FOIA reports for DoS. I’m only going to look at the 2015 report (PDF) for my analysis as that most accurately reflects current capacity.

  • In 2015, DoS received 24,837 FOIA requests.
  • DoS processed 14,002 requests.
  • Only 4,152 requests led to the production of documents, 30% of processed requests.
  • The average response time for simple requests was 165 days, 589 for complex requests.
  • By the end of 2015, the request backlog grew from 10,924 to 21,759.
  • DoS has an estimated 6,209 requests from USCIS that hadn’t been entered into their system for their end-of-year reporting.

DoS has a problem. They processed only 28% more cases than they had in the backlog when the year started. If you can barely process the backlog requests, how are you going to handle the new requests? Yes, they have had to process Hilary Clinton’s emails but they were clearly not prepared to handle the normal volume of FOIA processing.

As for the 500 pages per month (6,000 pages/year), DoS added 18,000 documents, including 11,000 Clinton emails, to their virtual public reading rooms in 2015. That is 1,500 documents a month which is a far cry from 500 pages unless every document was only a third of a page. A random selection of emails shows that many are over 1 page. In fact, Hilary Clinton’s emails average almost 2 pages per email.

The Reality

There are over 30,000 of Hilary Clinton’s emails available to the public which consist of 55,000 pages, as per the 2015 FOIA report. If they can process 55,000 pages in 1.5 years, they can at LEAST process her aides’ emails in 12-13 years. At six times the timeframe, 75 years is unreal.

We have to acknowledge that coordination with other agencies is tough and it takes time. However, many of the emails from Clinton’s aides have already been reviewed during the review of her emails. The aides also likely have common emails between them. That overlap will increase the pace.

What’s the solution? They likely don’t need a new IT system as USCIS is handling a much higher caseload, even if it is less complex, with an old system. DoS needs to augment their staff to clear the backlog and get into a better operational state. This goes beyond the current email questions. It goes straight to their ability to deliver on their FOIA responsibilities.

I don’t know what the real number is but I can tell you that if the answer is more than a couple years, it is too long.

4 thoughts on “FOIA, Email, Clinton, and the State Department

  1. I tend to agree with this, but “augment their staff” means spend more tax dollars they don’t have. Congress is barely letting TSA augment their staff, and that’s probably only because they also fly. They needed to invest in better systems and processes when they first were made to comply with the law.

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    • Not knowing their systems, not sure a newer system would work. There may or may not be potential process enhancements. FOIA is not a new thing and very little has changed in the available tech solutions over the years. They aren’t stagnant but there reaches a point when a person can only markup a page of content so fast. After all, they have to read everything they release and redact any PII and consider if the information is classified.

      As for staff augmentation, thinking primarily a temporary increase of low-cost contractors to clear the backlog and then establish a new baseline staff level. FOIA requests can generate fees if they are replied to in a timely fashion, so that actually helps defer the costs if they can cut response times. We are only talking about $1-2 million which is like me buying you 1 more beer a year. It would also be less than getting a new system which likely wouldn’t speed things up.

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      • Yeah, except Congress will take the fees and spend them somewhere else. That’s part of the problem with TSA – it was supposed to be self-sustaining, but they’ve diverted the fees.

        I agree, this shouldn’t be hard to figure out.

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      • Actually, they can’t touch the fees for this. Low scale. Congress can assume the fees and send less money though. That becomes a problem when fees cover X% of the costs and Congress doesn’t send enough to cover the difference.

        Oh, and I am in NO WAY disagreeing with what is happening with the TSA. Just a completely different ball of wax.

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