It often feels like everyone inside and outside the government agrees that over-classification of government records is a major problem. Yet a series of Freedom of Information Act requests by EFF has found that even when Congress allowed agencies to offer cash rewards to government employees to be less secretive, nobody has been collecting the money.
Recognizing the threat posed by over-classification, Congress passed legislation in 2010 to counter the pervasive problem of bureaucrats making benign government records secret. One of the most highlighted provisions of the Reducing Over-Classification Act (ROCA) was a new tool for agencies: cash incentives for employees who accurately classify (and declassify) documents.
Congress hoped that by offering a proverbial carrot to the line-level employees making initial and derivative classification decisions within federal agencies, it could increase transparency and allow greater information sharing between federal agencies and local law enforcement. Responses to EFF’s FOIA requests with 27 agencies demonstrates, however, that those carrots have rotted on the shelf.
Based on the FOIA responses EFF has received, it does not appear that a single federal agency with the power to classify documents has ever taken advantage of ROCA’s cash incentives program. EFF’s FOIA request sought a variety of records related to the ROCA incentive program, including guidelines for issuing bonuses and the amount of bonuses given out.
Of the agencies we queried,
16 18 agencies responded that they either had no responsive records or that they do not operate a ROCA incentive program. Three other agencies denied our request, while the remaining eight have yet to provide a determination.
Perhaps most notable were responses from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), two agencies charged with managing significant amounts of classified information. ODNI said it could not find any records, while NARA, which operates the National Declassification Center, responded at first that it didn’t think the law applied to it, but then doubled back and acknowledged that it hadn’t made use of ROCA incentives at all.
ROCA was designed not only to provide for greater transparency but also to pave the way for stronger public safety by sharing more information between federal and state authorities. So it should be a matter of great concern both to the public and to the members of Congress who passed the law.
In short, the carrot Congress gave to agencies has failed. It is time for Congress to use the stick to force agencies to classify less information.
Here are the agencies’ responses to our FOIA requests (in alphabetical order). Links are all .pdfs:
Updated Nov. 8, 2016: The U.S. Department of Army's FOIA response (no responsive documents) has been added.
Updated Feb. 1, 2019: The National Security Agency's FOIA response (no responsive documents) has been added.
Updated Feb. 6, 2019: The U.S. Treasury Department's FOIA response (no responsive documents) has been added.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives
"Please be advised that a search has been conducted in the Office of Human Resources and Professional Development, and based on the information you provided to us, we were not able to locate any responsive records subject to the Freedom of Information Act."
Drug Enforcement Agency
"Please be advised that your request has been thoroughly reviewed and tasking memoranda were forwarded to DEA’s Human Resource Division (HR), Human Resource Employee Relations Unit (HRER), Operations Division (OC), Intelligence Division (NC), Financial Management Division (FC), Office of Resource Management (FR), and Office of Security Programs (IS), the appropriate offices within the DEA that would be best suited, or would likely maintain records that are responsive to this request. As a result of our search, no records responsive to your request were located. Thus, no records exist."
Federal Bureau of Investigation
"Based on the information you provided, we conducted a search of the Central Records System. We were unable to identity main file records responsive to the FOIA."
Federal Bureau of Prisons
"A search was conducted of three divisions in the Central Office, and no records were found. There are no other locations where this type of record would be stored that would likely lead to the discovery of a responsive record with a reasonable amount of effort."
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
"In accordance with NASA’s FOIA regulations 14 CFR 1206.306 a diligent search was conducted for the records you request, and no responsive records were located."
National Archives and Records Administration (National Declassification Center)
"NARA has never issued an award regarding reducing derivative classification."
National Security Agency
"A thorough search of our files was conducted, but no records responsive to your request were located."
Office of the Director of National Intelligence
"After a thorough search in our records and databases, we were unable to locate any records responsive to your request."
U.S. Department of the Air Force
"The Intelligence Office (AF/A2) conducted an appropriate search of their database for responsive records, but none were found. Therefore, a ‘no records’ determination was made."
U.S. Department of the Army
"Based on the information provided to this office, I have determined that a reasonable search for responsive documents under the purview of this office was conducted and no responsive documents were found."
U.S. Department of Commerce
"We regret to inform you that after an extensive research, no responsive documents were located."
U.S. Department of Defense
"The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USD(I)), a component of the Secretary of Defense conducted a search of their records systems based on the information provided in your request. After thorough searches of the electronic records and files of USD(I), no records responsive to your request and request clarification could be identified. Further, USD(I) certified that, to the best of their knowledge, the records you describe do not exist. We believe that these search methods were appropriate and could reasonably be expected to produce the requested records if they existed."
U.S. Department of Energy
"Your request was assigned to the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (HC) and the Office of Environment, Health, Safety & Security (AU) to conduct a search of their files for responsive documents. DOE started its search on February 22, 2106, which is the cut-off date for responsive documents. HC and AU completed their search but did not locate any documents responsive to your request."
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
"The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration (ASA) conducted a search and reports that there are no records responsive to your request."
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
"We conducted a comprehensive search of files within Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer (OCHCO), Office of the Chief Security Office (CSO) and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for records that would be responsive to your request. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate or identify any responsive records."
U.S. Department of the Interior
"We are writing to respond to your request on behalf of the Office of the Secretary. After a search reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant documents, it has been determined that the Office of the Secretary has no records responsive to your request."
U.S. Department of the Navy
The Navy rejected the request because we failed "to describe the information…so that a knowledgeable official can locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort."
U.S. Department of State
The State Department claimed it could not process our request because:
"You have not reasonably described the records you seek in a way that someone familiar with Department records and programs could locate them."
"Some or all of the records you have requested do not appear to be State Department records."
U.S. Department of Transportation
"A search in the program office that would most likely have the type of information you requested, found no responsive records. Therefore, we have no records."
U.S. Department of Treasury
"A search for records resulted in no documents being located in response to your request."
U.S Environmental Protection Agency
"The EPA does not offer, and has not offered, cash incentives for accurate classifications. We do not have the records, documents, and reports you requested."
Agencies That Have Not Provided a Records Determination
Central Intelligence Agency
U.S. Department of Justice
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
U.S. Secret Service