Freedom of Information? Fifteen Months Waiting for Four Blank Pages

Back in December 2009, my colleague and -- I flatter myself -- friend Richard Pollock, PJM Washington bureau chief, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Air Force asking for some fairly routine information.

It was just after the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen. He wanted to know who was on the Air Force flights to Copenhagen -- including Air Force One. And he wanted to know how much taxpayer money was spent flying these people back and forth, how much baggage, etc.

There was a bit more to it than that, of course, but it was still pretty innocuous stuff. The volume of fuel used in the flights and how much the baggage weighed, as well as who was on all the flights, is information kept by the Air Force as a matter of course. This request should have taken about 20 minutes with a file cabinet to fill. Additionally, while this information would be classified (also as a matter of course), none of it was national security information. We all know the president went to Copenhagen and came back empty-handed.

Fast forward 15 months.

Richard finally got a response -- four blank pages.

Well, not completely blank. They had departure and arrival times for four airplanes, but everything else was redacted and referred to the Secret Service.

This was the culmination of 15 months of slapstick back-and-forth which would have done credit to a Buster Keaton movie.

The first response Richard got was an extension letter. (Legally, agencies are supposed to act on a FOIA request within 20 days. That almost never actually happens, of course, unless they're doing what FDIC did to us -- telling you to pound sand.) Candice Velasquez, a civilian employee of the Air Force, wrote in an email dated Feb. 5, 2010, that this very simple request was too broad:

This message is in response to you 23 December 2009 Freedom of Information Act request for information related to recent transportation of USG officials to and from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. We are unable to process your request, because it is too broad. The records desired is the responsibility of the member of the public who requests the records. The requester must provide a description of the desired records to enable the Air Force to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort. We are holding your request in abeyance until we receive your clarification.

Richard, who it must be said is pretty good at his job, sent back a clarification letter as requested, basically telling them they'd best pony up or our lawyers would be in touch.

Velasquez then decided delay was the best tactic and sent Richard a letter on March 15, 2010, telling him they needed an extension:

To process your request properly, we find a time extension is necessary because the amount of records we have to review. We will respond to you by 29 March 2010.

All well and good, except March 29, 2010, came and went and there was no response -- until April 9, 2010, when Velasquez sent another extension letter:

We find we are unable to meet the time limits of the FOIA because of the sustanial [sic] amount of records to be reviewed. We’ll continue to keep you informed on the status of your request.

By June 2010 this routine request had been kicked all the way up to the Office of the Secretary of Defense's office and the White House.

Richard, who got the four blank pages during the first part of March of this year, was understandably upset that the response to his very simple request was essentially: "screw you." He asked me to make a couple phone calls to see if I could get some answers as to why it had taken 15 months to come up with four blank pages.