In March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation closed all of my FOIA requests and banned me from filing any new requests.
This past Friday, they finally agreed to reinstate all of my requests and return to business as usual, after three long months.
So what happened? The ultra-condensed version is that they made up some fee violations (some involving time travel), lost a piece of mail and found a way to instantly reduce their backlog by 5%. They stuck to this course until Mark Zaid and Brad Moss became involved, spending several months going back and forth with the Bureau before finally threatening to sue.
Unbeknownst to me, the root of the problem began in 2016, when MuckRock sent the FBI a check for FOIA fees for one of my requests stemming from the Iran-Contra, October Surprise and Reagan’s Wrongs project. The FBI claimed the $205 check never arrived, having apparently gotten lost in the mail, like so many bullshit bill payments. Unlike those excuses and hypothetical bill payments, MuckRock’s records show that the check was written and sent out, so the Bureau’s claims that I was evading FOIA fees was a hard case to prove.
Then FBI decided to start making things up, demanding I pay fees on requests they legally weren’t allowed to charge me for due to failing to respond within the time allowed by the statute.
All of this is frustrating but theoretically understandable as far as bureaucratic SNAFUs go. Then the FBI brought time-travel into the mix, which is somehow not as unprecedented for FOIA obstruction as one might think.
At least three letters out of the dozens I received before FBI began condensing them into long lists of the requests they were closing (including the one for my own file, which the FBI has been dragging its feet on for years) informing me that there were other requests I allegedly owed fees for. What was curious about this was that, according to the FBI, I had been billed for these requests and owed fees for them in 2019, despite their not being filed until the following year.
None of this was cause for concern for the Bureau, or gave them pause before purging their backlog of 5% (according to the available numbers released by FBI compared with those published on FOIA.gov). Or if it was, they got over it and stuck to their guns. My objections didn’t persuade them, nor did the initial intervention of Mark Zaid and Brad Moss. It took three months of back and forth and a resubmitted check for the FBI to lift my ban. My FOIAs, however, would remain closed – and the Bureau’s backlog conveniently 5% lighter – until after they directly threat to sue.
Even that wasn’t enough – it merely brought FBI back to the table, where Zaid and Moss were finally able to convince them to do the right thing and reinstate my requests.
Long story short, FBI’s FOIA office has time travel technology and they’ll use it to screw you over, but Zaid and Moss can help.