Sunshine Week: Oldest FOIA Request Still Pending After 24 Years

By: (AP) Twenty-four years after a young and optimistic journalist-in-the-making typed up a Freedom of Information Act request and submitted it to the FBI, Seth Rosenfeld -- now an award-winning muckraker with a few gray hairs -- is still waiting for the records.

"I'm very disappointed that the Justice Department and the FBI have failed to comply with the law, with court orders, and with their own legal agreement to release these public records," Rosenfeld says.

An investigative and legal affairs reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Rosenfeld holds the dubious record of "longest pending FOIA request," according to the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research center on declassified documents.

When he made his request, Rosenfeld was researching Cold War FBI activities at the University of California. Well, actually, he's still researching it.

To date, his saga has included three lawsuits and orders to release the records from five federal judges. It's cost the FBI more than $1 million and prompted the release of more than 200,000 pages of documents -- though more records are still being held.

Despite a settlement agreement signed by the FBI in 1996 to release the requested material, the agency has acknowledged that it has yet to turn over an estimated 17,000 pages.

In 2002, Rosenfeld used the documents to write an award-winning package of stories describing how the FBI campaigned in the 1950s and '60s to curb the Free Speech Movement at the University of California-Berkeley and plotted to oust UC President Clark Kerr.

FBI spokeswoman Megan Baroska told The Associated Press that the agency cannot discuss other people's FOIA requests.

"Basically, the FOIA is a matter between the FBI and Mr. Rosenfeld," she said. "Mr. Rosenfeld could file a request to get further information about his request."

Rosenfeld's case has drawn broad public interest. Attorneys have worked on it for free, and public-record groups have advocated on his behalf.

"The [FOIA] statute says 20 days," said Barbara Elias, the FOIA coordinator at the National Security Archive, who surveyed federal agencies to find the oldest pending request. "There is no excuse that could extend search and review to 24 years." She said she'd urge Rosenfeld not to get frustrated and give up.

He's not about to.

"I still want to see what these records say," he said. "They concern the nation's largest law enforcement agency's activities at the nation's largest public university at a crucial time in U.S. history. I'm more curious than ever."


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