FOIA Requests and Bum Queues

IRS logo2by Jerry Richardson   8/28/14
IRS officials…busted!  It turns-out that the story of “lost or destroyed” Lois Lerner emails was a dishonest, half-truth story: Copies of the emails exist in catastrophe-backup mode.

Judicial Watch has sought Lois Lerner’s (and others) emails via FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) since May of 2013. The specific emails sought were those sent during portions of the same time period for which the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) notified (on June 13, 2014) the House Ways and Means Committee that the emails were lost or destroyed.

After IRS officials were required by federal judge Emmet G. Sullivan to make sworn statements, in the Judicial Watch case, concerning the whereabouts of the sought emails; the Obama-run IRS is now attempting a different tactic to avoid providing what they are required by law (FOIA) to provide.

“Department of Justice attorneys for the Internal Revenue Service told Judicial Watch on Friday that Lois Lerner’s emails, indeed all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe.  The Obama administration attorneys said that this back-up system would be too onerous to search.”  Missing Emails

“…too onerous to search”, is the Obama administration’s latest attempted excuse to avoid providing emails related to the IRS’ politically-driven mistreatment of conservative political groups, and the subsequent cover-up of the mistreatment.

The IRS apparently intends to plead that the emails are unavailable due to excessive time needed for recovery.  The IRS lawyers surely cannot believe that the federal judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, will simply excuse them from the effort of providing the emails:

“The Obama administration has known all along where the email records could be – but dishonestly withheld this information. You can bet we [Judicial Watch] are going to ask the court for immediate assistance in cutting through this massive obstruction of justice.”   Missing Emails

The standard time limit, established by FOIA, for a response to a request is 20 working days.  If forced to proceed, the Obama IRS attorneys will presumably argue for a need for much additional time.  Judicial Watch would just be forced to continue to wait.

Is this a run-out-the-clock strategy? Has it all been just one continuous stall?  Or, have the delay’s in FOIA response to Judicial Watch been a result of IRS’ failure to preserve documents as legally required,  poor FOIA rules, or perhaps poor servicing and unacceptable queue delay?

Queue is a word, of British origin, for a waiting-line (the line can be composed of any sort of item: people, cars, messages, etc.). Queue, when used as a technical term—which is how I am using it here—implies an ordered group of items waiting-for some specified service.

There is a large, detailed mathematical theory called queuing-theory.  It is used primarily to predict queue-times, queue-lengths, and total service-times at a given server or servers (which can be people, machines, telephone circuits, highway lanes, air-traffic lanes, etc.), anything where items must pass through for some type of processing, or just in order to proceed, e.g., as a car does on a freeway.

The actual time that it takes to perform some service is often not a major annoyance to customers who usually have some prior-expectation concerning the service-time; but having to wait for that service often is an annoyance—it can become a full-blown grievance.

In queuing-theory an individual’s wait, prior to service, is known as queue-time. Most modern service organizations, whatever the service, attempt to minimize in some way, queue-time; even if and more especially if, they cannot improve their basic service-time.

To my knowledge, the US Postal Service (USPS) was among the first, if not the first, well-known large organization to make use of the queuing-theory fact that multiple servers operate fastest (as a total) when served by a single queue (single waiting line).

This is why today at a US Post Office you see a line of postal workers (servers) behind their counter, with all the waiting customers in a single line.  I know, I know it usually seems (and often is) very slow.  But the mathematical fact is that if the single queue were to be broken-up into multiple queues (say one at each window) the total time to service the entire group of customers would be greater than with a single waiting line.

Many grocery stores use a result of queuing-theory to manage their check-out queues.  The grocery stores usually need queue-management that differs from the US Post Office because grocery stores often provide differentiated-servers (check-out for fewer than x-number of items versus check-out for an unlimited number of items).

The e-FOIA Amendment passed by Congress in 1996 provided a queuing-theory-friendly provision similar in principle to grocery-store queue management:

“In 1996, Congress passed the e-FOIA amendments (H.R. 3802), strengthening requirements for agencies to ensure timely responses to requests. To avoid prolonged delays for simple requests, Sec. 7 authorized multi-track processing. This means agencies can (and should) process simple and complex requests at the same time on separate tracks based on the amount of work or time involved—instead of on a “first-in, first-out” basis.”
Federal Agencies Lagging on FOIA

Despite existing FOIA laws, the track record of government agency response to FOIA requests is, overall, not good; and in some cases completely unacceptable:

[September 20, 2012] The Chief FOIA Officer Reports Summary indicated that it takes the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on average seven times longer to process a simple FOIA request than the 20-day legal limit for simple requests.

“It takes State, for example, an astounding average of 155 days to process a simple request.
“Too often it takes far too long for requesters to receive the information they are seeking. Several months ago, POGO
[Project on Government Oversight] did our own (smaller-scale) analysis, leading us to conclude that some agencies are failing to even acknowledge receipt of FOIA requests within 20 days, as required by law.”
Federal Agencies Lagging on FOIA

Perhaps some proposed new legislation might help:

“Washington, DC, June 24, 2014 – Congress may actually take action this year to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, according to the National Security Archive’s posting today of the new bipartisan bill by leading U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX). The Leahy-Cornyn bill, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014, would rein in the government’s ability to withhold ‘inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters’ merely by citing the Exemption Five ‘pre-decisional’ black hole, an exemption most recently stretched to include a 30-year-old CIA draft history of the 53-year-old Bay of Pigs Invasion.”
FOIA Reform

(Note: I wish I felt confident about this, but anything with the name Patrick Leahy attached makes me automatically suspicious. And I don’t exactly overflow with confidence when the name John Cornyn is attached.)

Americans are a busy and impatient people.  Waiting for service for anything is often annoying, and quickly catches everyone’s attention.  Our evaluation of service in every arena of life focuses considerable attention on queue-time, not necessarily on service-time.  Think about going to your doctor’s office.  Does the time the doctor takes with you annoy you?  Or does the time you have to spend waiting annoy you?  Neither? Maybe you are an exception.

Most people don’t consider waiting a fun activity.  And our anger quickly mounts if we feel we are being deceived about the amount of our time that is really needed, whether for service or for waiting.  This certainly seems to be the case with Judicial Watch:

    • Deception: After Judicial Watch had been waiting for more than a year, the IRS reported that the requested Lois Lerner emails had been lost or destroyed (yeah, the originals maybe, but not the back-ups for catastrophe).
    • Truth: “…all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe.”  However, recovery from catastrophe-backup may legitimately require longer than it usually does from standard storage.

If justice is to be done, how should Judge Sullivan require the IRS to proceed in this situation?

Even if the recovery of the emails will require longer than it would from standard storage, sufficient IRS manpower should be required in order to expedite Judicial Watch’s requests to the extent possible. Independent computer-experts should be required to participate in the recovery in order to insure that IRS foot-dragging does not occur.

There are well-known standard-engineering parameters for any service: cost, quality, and time. You cannot logically specify all three; you can only choose two, and let those two dictate the third.  After advise from independent computer-experts, Judge Sullivan should specify (approve) reasonable time and quality for the document (emails) delivery, and let the IRS worry about the cost in manpower hours. The IRS has broken the response process; let them pay for it, out of their existing budget.

In addition to FOIA non-responsiveness from IRS, America has witnessed, in recent months, inexcusable deceit from the Veterans Administration (VA) involving VA patient queues:

    • Deception: The VA has previously claimed that it provides care to patients in a “timely” manner.
  • Truth: Within the VA system there have been long queues and queue-times for many veterans who need and deserve critical health-service.

“At least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list.

“The secret list was part of an elaborate scheme designed by Veterans Affairs managers in Phoenix who were trying to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to a recently retired top VA doctor and several high-level sources.”
“There’s an ‘official’ list that’s shared with officials in Washington and shows the VA has been providing timely appointments, which Foote calls a sham list. And then there’s the real list that’s hidden from outsiders, where wait times can last more than a year.
“The VA requires its hospitals to provide care to patients in a timely manner, typically within 14 to 30 days, Foote said.” 
Veterans queue and die

With truthful data, basic service-times of needed services can be known, and queue-times can be predicted and allowed for.  However, when the owners and providers of data are dishonest, queue-times may be unpredictably long, or just completely unknown; hence facilitating deceitful delays.

The significance of queue-time in our modern society, due to the rapid pace of life and impatience (justified or unjustified) is the fact that judgment concerning the quality of any service is increasing influenced by a demand for shortened queue-times, regardless of what the basic service-time may be.

People do not want to wait.   

Americans are an impatient (for results) people; however, they will wait for what they want if the reasons for the wait are known and believed to be reasonable.  But, unknown service-times, and unpredictable queue-times for essential services (including governmental services) are unfair; and unacceptable to modern, busy Americans; especially since service-times can be known and queue-times can be predicted mathematically with reasonable accuracy.

At the very least, the American people deserve an honest detailed explanation of the reasons they have to wait; not lame excuses for intentional politically-motivated stalls.

© 2014, Jerry Richardson • (828 views)

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One Response to FOIA Requests and Bum Queues

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    One thing judges can do is jail people for contempt of court. It’s only a beginning in terms of punishing even the button men of the Obama Gang and does nothing for the various capi (especially capo di tutti capi Barry Bam), but it would be better than nothing (which is all Eric Holder — Anselmi to Barry’s Capone and the IRS’s Scalise — will do).

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