Reports Show Spike in Lawsuits Against Intelligence Agencies Due to High Rate of FOIA Denials and Slow Processing Time

Lawsuits Caused by Lack of FOIA Compliance Waste Taxpayer’s Money and Infringe on the Public’s Right to Know

WASHINGTON – Open The Government Executive Director Lisa Rosenberg urged America’s military and intelligence agencies to be more forthcoming and less secretive to avoid costly lawsuits that waste taxpayer’s money and infringe on the public’s right to know. Freedom of Information Act lawsuits have increased sharply under this administration, and an OTG survey of recent FOIA reports on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Army, Navy, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), show that these agencies spend a disproportionate amount of taxpayer’s dollars on FOIA-related litigation costs. The CIA is far and away the biggest abuser when it comes to government spending in defense of secrecy.  

“Excessive and reflexive secrecy, that serves no legitimate purpose, is a costly habit that our intelligence community needs to kick before they waste more taxpayer’s money defending the indefensible in costly FOIA lawsuits,” said Open The Government Executive Director Lisa Rosenberg. “Congress needs to step-up and fulfill its oversight role to make sure agencies are accountable to the public and fully complying with their legal transparency requirements.”


Among the findings:


  • FOIA lawsuits grew steadily across the government by 57-percent overall for a ten year period, from 2006-15, and increased sharply by 26-percent in FY 2017. 
  • The CIA alone spends over $2 million a year defending FOIA lawsuits. In 2017, CIA’s litigation costs grew to $2.5 million.
  • The NSA and CIA fully denied about 40-percent of all FOIA requests on exemption grounds last year.
  • NSA and DIA’s processing times are 5 to 6 times longer than the average for other agencies
  • Expediting requests does not always result in shorter processing times and FOIA annual reports do not always track processing times for expedited requests.
  • The CIA denies a significantly higher proportion of FOIA requests because of ongoing litigation than any other agency surveyed.
  • FOIA requesters have a better chance of getting records released from the Army and Navy than other agencies examined in the survey.

OTG’s study comes the same time as a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finding that many agencies are falling short in meeting their FOIA requirements. The GAO report is the result of a bipartisan request sent by members of Congress in April 2016. Read that report, here.