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CIA Finally Answers a 20-Year-Old FOIA Request: The FOIA Coordinator’s View

November 2, 2009

The Archive recently received documents in response to a FOIA request it filed more than two decades ago.  The long history of this forgotten request says a lot about today’s broken FOIA system. . . .

In July 1989, National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh filed a FOIA request about Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian-born businessman who played an integral role in the Iran-Contra affair.  Ghorbanifar’s involvement was described in detail in official investigations into the Contras, including the Tower Commission and the 1987 joint hearings before the House Select Committee.

In the last 20 years, the CIA sent status updates about this request intermittently: in August 1989, in October 1992, and in November 2003. Two of these responses seemed more concerned with determining and collecting fees than with the fulfilling the request itself.

In June 2009, the CIA released 1 document in full and 14 documents with excisions. An unknown quantity of “additional material” was withheld in its entirety under FOIA exemptions b(1), b(2), b(3), b(5), and b(6)—the veritable kitchen sink of exemptions routinely claimed by intelligence agencies.

At the time of this June 2009 release, the CIA told the Archive that it had also located US government materials that had originated at other agencies.  The CIA then sent interagency referrals to the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the National Security Council (NSC). We recently received more documents released by State and the NSC, but we are still waiting to hear about relevant documents from Defense Department components.

In our experience at the Archive, we often find that interagency referrals like this can be the cause of significant delays. However, the fact that we received responses so quickly (within 6 months) from these “outside” agencies demonstrates that the problem clearly started, and ended, with the CIA.

Even more troubling than the fact that it took the CIA almost exactly 20 years to process the CIA portion of this request (and refer responsive documents to other agencies for their review) is that the CIA did not report this request as its oldest pending request in its most recent FOIA annual report. According to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2008 report, the oldest FOIA request still pending at the CIA was dated May 1, 1992.

In what dark drawer was this 1989 request when the CIA was writing the 2008 FOIA report to Congress and the Department of Justice? When it came to reporting its ten oldest pending FOIA requests, did the CIA look very hard for old requests like this one?

If this FOIA request could talk, I wonder what it would say about the last 20 years?

To read the analyst’s view on this FOIA request, click here.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 4:05 pm

    :*: I am very thankful to this topic because it really gives useful information `,~

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