Crenshaw Opening Statement at DHS FOIA Hearing
WASHINGTON – Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), Oversight and Management Accountability Subcommittee ranking member, today delivered the following opening statement at a hearing entitled, “The Public’s Right to Know: FOIA at the Department of Homeland Security.”
I am pleased we are holding this hearing today to examine how the Department of Homeland Security complies with the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, was enacted in 1966 as a tool to provide transparency and accountability into federal government operations. The Act has helped to uncover instances of waste, fraud, and abuse as well as misconduct in federal government agencies.
It was a FOIA request that uncovered wasteful government spending in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was a FOIA request that exposed over $200 million in wasteful spending at the Department of Defense through a program that allowed vendors to set their own prices, including $1,000 for toasters. In 1978, FOIA was used to expose information about the exploding gas tanks on the Ford Pinto and the car was then recalled.
Since its enactment, FOIA has been used by U.S. citizens, organizations, and journalists to request information about how our government is operating and hold the executive branch accountable to the people it serves.
Each year, watchdog groups and reporters do an annual assessment of FOIA and the responsiveness of the Administration to FOIA requests. In 2016, it was reported that the Obama administration received 769,903 requests and set a record by censoring government files or denying access to records 77 percent of the time. In 2018, it was reported that the Trump administration did so 78 percent of the time with 823,222 requests for information. These statistics are troubling for both administrations. We must look at ways to improve the responsiveness to FOIA for our citizens.
DHS, as one of the largest agencies in the federal government, is no stranger to FOIA requests. In fact, DHS receives more FOIA requests than any other federal government agency. In 2018, DHS received 395, 751 requests for information. The next closest agency was the Department of Justice with 96, 875 requests. In August of 2019 alone, DHS received 39,141 FOIA requests. USCIS is the largest recipient of requests in DHS with 191,804 requests received in FY 2018.
The Privacy Office at DHS has implemented a FOIA processing and tracking system, provided support to the components in processing backlogs, and issued policy guidance and training related to FOIA. USCIS has developed and implemented its own electronic FOIA request system called Freedom of Information Act Records System (FIRST). USCIS deployed FIRST in May of 2018 to allow individuals to create an online account to electronically submit and track FOIA requests and receive documents to satisfy those requests.
DHS has made improvements, but large backlogs in processing remain. I encourage DHS and USCIS to continue their efforts to improve responsiveness to FOIA requests. I know DHS has sought the advice and assistance of our other two witnesses on improving the FOIA process. I look forward to hearing their assessment of how DHS handles FOIA requests and how it can improve operations to ensure accountability for U.S. citizens.