Bureaucracy is oppressive at the best of times. From waiting five plus years to get on a waiting list to receive a housing voucher to veterans receiving abysmal care, the pitfalls are everywhere. When it comes to brutality, death, and documentation, the system is often just as dysfunctional.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a piece of legislation whose purpose is to provide the public with access to federal records. Individuals can submit a FOIA request to receive documents such as federal case files, archival records, or military records. There are nine exemptions including risk to national security, invasion of personal privacy, trade secrets, and Attorney-Client privilege. The full list of exemptions can be found here.
Families of murder victims and coalitions for justice are no strangers to FOIA requests. For them, the tedium of waiting reopens old wounds. Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub are relentless for justice in the case of their high school teacher Sister Cathy Cesnik, who was murdered in 1969.
Their story is chronicled in the Netflix documentary series The Keepers. Abbie displays her thick folders and organized office full of FOIA requests for FBI files on Cesnik’s case; pending or denied. Cathy Cesnik’s murder occurred more than 50 years ago and her family and friends are still waiting for answers. At this point, it rings as a gross ignorance from the FBI. Abbie and Gemma are always tangled in a web of bureaucracy, but their motivation stays strong.
Considering FOIA exemptions, there doesn’t appear to be a reason for such slow response. In 2019, Abbie shared on Facebook that she “requested them nearly five years ago, hoping that information on Sister Cathy’s murder might be within the records”. She explained the long backlogs in getting documents. She makes the point that while Congress passed the FOIA law, “they did not add funding nor staff to fulfill the request”. She has been promised dates to receive information that have not been met. At this point, Gemma and Abbie rightfully blame the FBI and have mentioned suing (an expensive process with an unlikely outcome). Its par for the course to wait years for an initial requests to be answered, leaving victims without closure.
Sister Cathy’s isn’t the only case to prove the dysfunction of the FOIA. Laquan McDonald was a 17 year old boy who was shot to death by a Chicago police officer in 2014. Police claimed to have shot once and in self-defense. It took four months for media to obtain his autopsy report (after submitting an FOIA request), which showed he had been shot 16 times while walking away from the officer. It took eight months to obtain the video of the murder.
FOIA requests have been instrumental in revealing information about Medicare fraud, the war in Afghanistan, and government-sanctioned torture. There are many examples of FOIA revelations. But, considering the typical wait times and often flat-out ignorance, I must make the conclusion that changes are necessary. We need staff and offices devoted to FOIA requests.
(Image source: The Keepers on Netflix)