Feb. 15, 2017 – Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is concerned to learn that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has announced that it will no longer accept requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by email as of March 1, 2017. This change in policy could prove to be a new obstacle to government transparency and access to information for one of the most important agencies within the United States government.
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On February 6, the FBI announced that it would no longer accept any FOIA requests by email as of March 1st, but still allow requests by fax, snail mail, and an online portal for a small number of requests that met additional requirements. These conditions, such as limiting requests to one per day and one per submission, and restricting the length of requests to 3,000 characters, are not actually required by law.
FOIA is an important tool used by both journalists and the public to release government documents. One of the more notable examples of the tool’s success was when a VICE News reporter used FOIA to request all of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her time as Secretary of State. What resulted was the discovery that she had in fact used a private and unsecure email server for official government business during that time.
Though the FBI declared the following day it would lift all additional restrictions for online portal submissions, the switch from email submissions to fax, snail mail or online portal submissions will still make it more difficult for citizens to access information.
Adam Marshall, an attorney who specializes in FOIA at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) told RSF that “the FBI is one of the more difficult agencies to deal with when it comes to FOIA requests. They are quite opaque.”
Nate Jones, Director of the FOIA project at the National Security Archive, echoes that assessment. “This is one of a long string of instances where the FBI has made it hard for the public to access information on its activities,” he said. According to Jones, it’s not enough that the FBI removed the initial restrictions to submissions via their online portal. “To eliminate the most efficient avenue that the public has used to request information is unacceptable,” Jones told RSF, especially since data shows the portal is a much less effective method than email.
Jones told RSF that the FBI is not alone in restricting FOIA requests. Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Defense (DOD) Inspector General’s office have started to restrict email submissions as well.
“Given the power of FOIA requests to shed light on the activities of government agencies and their employees, we are concerned that the FBI’s changes to how they will accept requests for information will further complicate the process and negatively impact government transparency,” said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF North America.
The United States ranks 41 out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2016 World Press Freedom Index.