Intel Agencies Lack 'Adequate Tech' for FOIA Requests


A recently published inspector general report shows a more coordinated technology approach could help intelligence agencies fulfill Freedom of Information Act inquiries in a timely manner.

If the intelligence community wants to lessen its information request backlog and avoid lawsuits, the agencies need to make better use of technology and stop applying an “industrial age process … to a digital age challenge.”

A Sept. 28 report from the intelligence community inspector general released publicly last week found the agencies’ processes for responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is inefficient and will continue to lead to growing backlogs and litigation if not improved. Among the issues is a lack of “adequate technology” to support processing FOIA requests.

Technology is being used to manage FOIA requests across the IC, though not uniformly. The inspector general looked at 10 standard use cases for technology in this area and found only the CIA was using those tools in every instance. Other agencies hit most of the areas of effort, though two, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, only showed progress in five and six areas, respectively.

Among the technologies, all six agencies reviewed were using tools to help with search, redaction and interagency referrals and consultations. On the low end, only three agencies—CIA, National Reconnaissance Office and the National Security Agency—were using technology to help with archive and retrieval of prior releases and for converting or otherwise preparing documents for dissemination.

While intelligence agencies are using technology to manage FOIA requests and workloads, they have not always done so in a modern way, according to auditors.

“Within the IC elements, we characterize the execution of FOIA responsibilities as an industrial age process applied to a digital age challenge,” the IG wrote. “The most profound outcome of this mismatch is inefficiency that affects ability to meet statutory deadlines.”

Investigators offered a list of challenges that are a direct result of this “mismatch,” including:

  • Duplication of effort as requests move between offices for review.
  • Multiple transformations of documents from soft to hard copy and back to soft.
  • Reentering redactions of information made on one system into records on another.

“These inefficiencies extend overall processing time and increase opportunities for human error and inconsistencies,” the report states. “Without a strategic approach, the IC will continue to struggle to comply with statutory deadlines and the resulting litigation.”

The problem, according to the IG, is not the technology or will to use it but rather the lack of a coherent strategic approach. For instance, the report notes that some agencies—particularly Defense Intelligence and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency—do not have resources set aside to upgrade FOIA systems, instead relying on reprogrammed funds to meet modernization mandates.

More broadly, the community’s FOIA infrastructure tends to be decentralized, including “key FOIA-related business lines” such as records management, IT management and the offices in charge of releasing the documents to the public. These efforts “reside in different offices, with little sustained focus on integrating their activities to enhance FOIA processing,” the report states.

The IG did cite two current lines of effort that could substantially improve the intelligence community’s FOIA process: a set of reference architectures for employing artificial intelligence and machine learning called Augmenting Intelligence Using Machines, or AIM; and the Modernization of Data Management and Infrastructure program. Both efforts are part of the Consolidated Intelligence Guidance plan, which offers a roadmap for IC agencies through 2024.

Ultimately, the IG recommended the director of national intelligence take the lead in revising the 2016 FOIA Improvement Plan to better sync IT efforts with strategic priorities. The ODNI concurred with the recommendation.