Last week the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent out a statement intended to clarify concerns raised by the March 19 public notice of proposed modifications to DOJ's Privacy Act and Freedom of Information Act system of records. The notice made several references to the DOJ's Office of Information Policy (OIP) serving as “Ombudsman” in disputes between federal agencies and individuals who submit requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). According to DOJ's statement, its actions are more accurately described as "compliance inquiries."
The original notice sparked the concern of several of our coalition partners and of Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator John Cornyn because the role of ombudsman is explicitly given to Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) by the OPEN Government Act of 2007. Intervention by DOJ to resolve specific questions or concerns regarding specific FOIA requests made to agencies other than DOJ, creates unnecessary confusion for agencies and requesters alike regarding how federal FOIA disputes should be handled. Assertion of this role and interventions by DOJ also undermine OGIS’s authority as the legislatively authorized FOIA ombudsman.
DOJ's clarifying statement is a positive signal that they are not intentionally undermining OGIS' role. The statement leaves several questions raised by the original notice unclear, however. Today we and some of our coalition partners who are deeply involved in federal FOIA issues, issued a letter asking DOJ to further clarify what it means by the "compliance inquiries" referenced in the statement and what actions it takes in response to such inquiries.