Over the past year, I have filed more than 100 Freedom of Information Act requests to try to learn more about what becomes of millions of tax dollars that go toward democracy programs in Cuba.
I filed most of the FOIA requests in October 2011. They went to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. In terms of documents, I’ve gotten little in return: A 33-page grant proposal and a 10-page report on a $1.47 million audit of USAID’s Cuba programs. Both documents are so heavily redacted that they are practically useless and devoid of information.
I have filed four FOIA appeals so far. See details here. But I haven’t had much to appeal because most of the FOIA requests I have made are being processed. The oldest pending Cuba Money Project request is more than 300 days old.
I think that it’s important to go through the exercise of trying to get these documents, exhausting all administrative channels for obtaining this information. These agencies are not voluntarily providing information to the public beyond scattered disclosures of grant amounts and general program descriptions. I am convinced that someone, somewhere in the federal bureaucracy will eventually agree that there should be a greater degree of transparency and disclosure.
Even though I’ve gotten few concrete results so far, I’ve learned a few things.
I have seen that USAID has been much more responsive than the State Department. USAID made an effort to give me a quick initial response to my requests, as required by law, after I filed a flurry of FOIAs in October. The State Department has been much slower to respond.
The website Public Citizen states:
The law sets specific deadlines for replying to FOIA requests: 20 working days on the initial request…
It took the State Department from eight to 12 weeks to give initial responses to 15 of the three dozen or so FOIAs I filed with State in October. The department has not yet responded to more than half the requests. I plan to ask the State Department later this week why it has delayed longer than 20 working days to give initial responses.
In six of their responses to my October FOIAs, State Department officials have said:
You have not reasonably described the records you seek in a way that someone familiar with Department records and programs could locate them. Accordingly, your request is invalid and your case has been closed.
The letters – this one dated Jan. 6, for instance - say they need a contract, solicitation or requisition number to search for the records I have requested. It is not enough for me to provide the name of the program, the contractor and the year. So when I asked for the contract that Freedom House received for its Cuba Youth Program in 2008, or the contract that the Pan American Development Foundation received in 2009 for its Cuba Youth Program, the State Department said I failed to provide enough information. I need to find the contract numbers.
If I can find the contract numbers, then I’ll resubmit the FOIAs. But I plan to study the State Department’s responses to see if it would be worth appealing any of its rulings. In an appeal, I would argue that the State Department didn’t look hard enough for the records.
In the State Department’s remaining nine responses to my October FOIAs, officials did not classify my FOIAs as news media requests. They are asking that I submit evidence that these requests belong in the news media category. So I’ll do that later this week.
USAID took a similar approach, asking me to provide such evidence. I did that and USAID put my requests in the news media category. That is important because falling outside the news media category could allow the government to charge search and copy fees that I can’t afford.
What’s certain is that neither USAID nor the State Department give up information on their Cuba programs easily.