Transcript of "Chief FOIA Officer Report for 2009"
Council on Environmental Quality
Chief FOIA Officer Report for 2009
March 15, 2010
I. Steps Taken to Apply the Presumption of Openness
1. Since January 21, 2009, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has substantively
revised its FOIA practices to comply with the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney
General’s FOIA Guidelines. First, CEQ undertook to revise its FOIA regulations to reflect the
policy of disclosure promulgated in the two memoranda. The revised FOIA regulations address
the issue of transparency from the start by notifying the public that, although communications
between CEQ, the White House, and other Federal agencies may be confidential and thus may be
withheld should they fall within a FOIA exemption, CEQ is implementing a presumption of
disclosure except in those particular cases where disclosure may impair Executive Branch
policymaking processes or CEQ’s participation in interagency deliberations. The revised
regulations were published for public comment in the Federal Register on November 15, 2009,
and will be finalized in coordination with the Department of Justice and the Office of
Management and Budget.
CEQ’s revision of its FOIA regulations was informed by a thorough review of its existing FOIA
practices, which resulted in the General Counsel’s issuance of written FOIA procedures on
October 21, 2009 (attached). The procedures formalize CEQ’s framework for processing FOIA
requests from initial receipt of a request through the final response. They specify entry points for
staff by office and call for a predetermined schedule, so that statutory obligations can be met in a
timely manner. Central to these FOIA procedures is the concept of layered or successive levels
of document review, beginning with the FOIA Coordinator, who culls the responsive records
from those that have been identified as potentially responsive and continuing through the Deputy
General Counsel, who makes the decisions on individuals and/or entities required to participate
in the next level of review. If another EOP component has received a similar FOIA request, CEQ
will coordinate with that component when developing CEQ’s response. The goal is to ensure
adequate and efficient review of CEQ records prior to release.
Finally, we provided guidance to the CEQ staff on proper identification of deliberative and
predecisional communications to ensure that we are not misusing the designation. This direction
is designed to facilitate the greater transparency the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the
Attorney General’s Guidelines describe.
In addition to these major undertakings, CEQ has incorporated several additional measures to
promote a culture of transparency with the agency. As part of CEQ’s regular orientation process,
incoming staff is briefed on the importance of implementing the President’s FOIA Memorandum
and the Attorney General’s Guidelines on transparency. The text of the materials is also provided
in CEQ’s employee handbook for ready reference. CEQ’s general records management training
has been broadened to incorporate discussion of the memoranda with particular attention to each
individual’s augmented responsibilities under FOIA. Special training on how to search for and
identify records potentially responsive to a FOIA request is offered as needed.
In the course of implementing the President’s Memorandum and the Attorney General’s
Guidelines, CEQ has reviewed responsive documents withheld in the U.S. v. CREW litigation
regarding climate change science documents. As a result, CEQ has determined to make the
discretionary release of 4,879 additional pages and will continue to review the documents to
determine if additional discretionary releases are appropriate.
2. In Fiscal Year 2008, in response to 11 FOIA requests, CEQ released records in full; it
released records in part in response to 14 FOIA requests. In Fiscal Year 2009, in response to 14
FOIA requests, CEQ released records in full; it released records in part in response to 12 FOIA
II. Steps Taken to Ensure that CEQ has an Effective System for Responding to Requests
CEQ’s written FOIA procedures document the steps CEQ has taken to establish an effective
system for responding to requests. All FOIA requests are received by CEQ’s FOIA Coordinator,
assigned a tracking number, and logged into a spreadsheet identifying the requester, the subject
matter, the date of receipt, and the date a response is due. The FOIA Coordinator uses the
spreadsheet, which is kept on a shared drive on CEQ’s internal network, to track the status of the
request from receipt to the final response. FOIA requests are acknowledged within two days of
their receipt; the acknowledgement includes the tracking number for the request and a direct
phone number the requester can use to contact CEQ for further information. Upon receipt of a
request, the FOIA Coordinator notifies the Office of General Counsel and the Chief of Staff who
will, if appropriate and necessary, alert their counterparts in other EOP agencies to determine
whether a coordinated EOP response is appropriate. The FOIA Coordinator develops an internal
schedule for processing the request to meet the deadline, taking into account both the complexity
of the request and the review(s) required before a response can be made. The FOIA Coordinator
then circulates the request to all staff via an email that includes search instructions, suggested
search terms, and deadlines for meeting search responsibilities. The substance of new FOIAs and
the processing schedule are discussed at management-level meetings and weekly general staff
meetings. Managers follow up with their individual teams and emphasize the importance of
responding in full to the request.
The FOIA Coordinator reviews the universe of responsive documents and makes
recommendations on the applicability of exemptions and the potential for discretionary release.
After conferring with the records creators and the General Counsel, the FOIA Coordinator
provides as complete a response as possible to the requester, only withholding those documents
or portions of documents when the harm of release can be adequately articulated.
CEQ continues to work with the Office of Administration, Executive Office of the President
(EOP), to ensure adequate IT support for FOIA personnel. CEQ has no IT staff in house and has
historically depended on the Office of Administration to provide the necessary technical support
and expertise; however, this is no longer the case. The need for technical support is a very real
constraint and, for example, affects CEQ’s ability to fully develop its Proactive Disclosure
III. Steps Taken To Increase Proactive Disclosures
In January 2010, CEQ launched its new FOIA Requester Service Center at
www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/foia, revamping its existing site to reflect the
President’s Memorandum and the Attorney General’s Guidelines. The FOIA Center opens with a
direct quotation from the President’s January 21, 2009, memorandum. It features additional
material, such as a Frequently Asked Questions page to educate the public about the Freedom of
Information Act and clarify how the FOIA process works at CEQ. The centerpiece of the new
FOIA Center is the Proactive Disclosure Reading Room, where CEQ makes available a variety
of information, including reports, publications, environmental laws and regulations, documents
frequently requested under FOIA, and the legislative history of the National Environmental
Policy Act. CEQ is committed to updating the online reading room per the Attorney General’s
Guidelines, although the need for technical support (see Section IV below), is an impediment.
In addition to revamping the FOIA Requester Service Center, CEQ has devoted significant
resources to re-reviewing documents in response to a FOIA request that is currently in litigation:
CREW v. CEQ, No.0 7-365(D.D.C.) (RMU). Using the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the
Attorney General’s Guidelines as a basis to reexamine materials previously withheld in part or in
full on the draft Vaughn Index, CEQ has subsequently disclosed 4,879 additional pages of
documents. This number represents approximately half of the documents scheduled for
reevaluation. This reevaluation of documents with an eye toward discretionary release continues.
IV. Steps taken to Utilize Technology
1) Does CEQ currently receive requests electronically?
Yes. CEQ receives electronic requests via firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Are there impediments to CEQ’s receipt of requests electronically?
3) Does CEQ track its FOIA requests electronically?
Yes. CEQ uses an Excel spreadsheet to track its requests
4) Are there impediments to CEQ’s tracking of FOIA requests electronically?
5) Does CEQ use technology to process requests?
Yes.CEQ uses the Microsoft Office Suite to process requests
6) Are there impediments to CEQ’s use of technology to process requests?
7) Does CEQ use technology to prepare its Annual FOIA Report?
8) Are there impediments to CEQ’s use of technology in preparing its Annual FOIA Report?
Yes. CEQ shares the White House website where its Annual FOIA Report is posted with
all other components of the EOP and must work within the established technical
limitations. CEQ has not been able to comply with the OIP directive that requires all
agencies to post their 2009 FOIA Annual Reports in machine-readable format,
specifically CSV or XML. The report is currently posted as a Word Document and is
only accessible through the SlideShare program available through White House web team
V. Steps Taken to Reduce Backlogs and Improve Timeliness in Responding to Requests
1. As noted in Figure VII. A. of CEQ’s 2009 Annual FOIA Report, CEQ’s backlog of cases for
Fiscal Year 2008 totaled five; in Fiscal Year 2009, it also totaled five. CEQ’s oldest pending
request dates from July 1, 2005. Two of the five pending cases date from 2005, and one dates
from 2006. These four share the same topic, and involve the same set of responsive records. In
addition, one of the cases, CREW v. CEQ, No.0 7-365(D.D.C) (RMU), has been in litigation
since February 2007, which prior to 2009, has made it impossible to close out the other three.
The remaining case pending at the close of Fiscal Year 2009 came in at the end of the reporting
period on September 25, 2009. It is currently being processed.
2. At the beginning of Fiscal Year 2010, CEQ renewed contact with each of the requesters
whose requests were backlogged and, as a result, has determined that three of the backlogged
cases could be retired because the requesters were no longer interested in pursuing the request.
With the resolution of the CREW litigation, we anticipate that the two remaining cases will also
come off the books, and eliminate CEQ’s backlog altogether.
3. CEQ has issued written FOIA procedures to all staff and provided special training
emphasizing the role of each employee in assuring CEQ makes its 20-day deadline. We continue
to refine our procedures and provide targeted training in such areas as search techniques in an
attempt to collect responsive records in a timely manner.