“We currently estimate that the ability to process FOIA requests is limited by 96% due to the unavailability of REAs,” Stein wrote, using the state’s acronym for “retired retirees.”
Stein said he ordered retired employees to stay “out of the office” for “several weeks” because FOIA work was not considered business critical, but he also raised concerns about their health due to their age. “Many of them belong to the age groups in which the CDC found a higher risk of serious illnesses from COVID-19,” he wrote.
Stein’s statement was presented this week to federal judges in Washington, who handled at least seven FOIA lawsuits by groups and individuals at various points in the political spectrum.
These include cases where conservative journalist John Solomon is looking for records of a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine fired by President Donald Trump, Marie Yovanovitch, where the conservative Citizens United group is requesting information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appointments and in which the liberal organization Campaign for Accountability looks for information about the interaction of the Trump administration with anti-abortion groups.
Stein’s eight-page statement aimed to convince the judges who handled the suits to postpone the looming deadlines for 60 days. The judges approved several applications, with plaintiffs providing little or no opposition.
Some other agencies have stopped all FOIA processing due to the COVID 19 outbreak. The FBI has told the courts that it sent practically all those who process such requests home 10 days ago. They are expected to return on Monday, but it is unclear whether this will happen.
The FBI has stated that teleworking is not practical for their FOIA examiners because they all use a classified system and employees cannot access it from home.
Stein said the state is in the process of switching to a new system that would allow assessors to process unclassified records at home, but the vast majority of retired diplomats are now not set up to do so. He said he was trying to speed up this ability but faced several hurdles.
“Very few REAs are teleworking ready,” wrote Stein. “Most do not have current, approved teleworking agreements, do not have the technological ability to telework, or have chosen not to telework. REAs cannot be forced to work remotely. “
The state FOIA system has had to deal with massive backlogs and delays for years. It was shaken in 2015 by the urgent need for tens of thousands of emails that Clinton exchanged on a private server and later made available to the department upon request.
The state brought waves of additional aid to try to process the intimidating batch of records waiting to be processed. In 2017, Trump administration officials began involuntarily transferring some employees to work on the FOIA review. This led to a so-called “surge” that caused the anger of some experienced diplomats.
Despite these efforts, the number of backlogged requests from State has continued to increase. At the end of the 2019 financial year, there were 11,106 after the legally required response period, compared to 10,400 in the previous year a current report.