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FBI Is Using Coronavirus Pandemic as an Excuse to Limit Public’s Access to Information

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Tuesday announced that it would no longer accept electronic Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests due to the ongoing challenges posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus. It said that the bureau will only accept requests physically sent through standard mail.

The decision to restrict online FOIA requests appears counter-intuitive in light of the Trump administration’s calls to practice social distancing and work remotely whenever possible, and will severely limit the public’s access to information that would otherwise be available.

“Due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, the FBI is not accepting electronic Freedom of Information/Privacy Act requests or sending out electronic responses through the eFOIPA portal at this time,” the FBI’s FOIA webpage stated. “You may still submit a FOIPA request via standard mail. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding.”

The FBI did not provide any additional context regarding the decision on its webpage.

FOIA requests are a valuable tool in in maintaining transparency between the federal government and the American people.

“Press releases tell us when federal agencies do something right, but the Freedom of Information Act lets us know when they do not,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) famously said in 1996 of the critical role FOIA requests play in maintaining government accountability.

BuzzFeed journalist and prolific FOIA specialist Jason Leopold expressed his concern over the bureau’s decision, noting that it did not make sense respond to the global pandemic by forcing people to seeking information to put themselves in harm’s way.

“Because of coronavirus, the FBI wants you to lick an envelope and stamp and leave your house and mail them your FOIA request instead of emailing the request to them. Then FBI will open that envelope because it’s safer,” he wrote on Twitter.

In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a Justice Department attorney said that the “rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation is forcing FBI to drastically reduce its FOIA processing because it cannot do the work remotely, due to the system’s security constraints.”

“The FOIA processors need to be on-site to do the work, but they are too closely positioned to be able to conform to the new social distancing guidance,” the person said. “FBI is working on a response, but it is not clear when it will have one. And the production scheduled for the end of this month is now on hold, along with productions in many other cases.”

In recent days and months, FOIA has not been kind to the Trump administration, and some agencies have changed their FOIA policies. Attorney General William Barr has made his thoughts on FOIA abundantly clear.

[image via Scott Olson/Getty Image]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.