WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge pushed government lawyers Tuesday to explain why investigative bureau staffing has not grown commensurate with the tidal wave of Freedom of Information Act requests that courts are now enforcing.
“It seems to me that they are just thumbing their nose at the FOIA statute because we are talking about years down the road,” U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said this morning at a conference related to requests from BuzzFeed and CNN.
Both outlets have requested extensive records from the FBI related to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Justice Department attorney Courtney Enlow said Tuesday that the requested FBI reports on interviews with approximately 500 witnesses during the two-year long investigation — known as 302 reports — amount to 800 documents, or over 11,000 pages.
One of the FOIA requests from BuzzFeed’s senior investigative reporter Jason Leopold seeks all records from the Mueller investigation. Enlow said the sum total of pages to turn over those records could be in the billions.
Though the government will start handing over documents to BuzzFeed and CNN beginning on Nov. 1, Enlow said it would take at least six years to respond in full at a pace of 500 pages per month.
Unsatisfied, Judge Walton asked why an administration that came in with promises to disrupt Washington was not better prepared for the lawsuits that followed.
“It shouldn’t fall on the backs of the citizens to wait years to find out what the government is up to,” Walton said
Though Walton said he and his fellow Washington judges are “overburdened” by the litany of FOIA lawsuits filed against the Trump administration, Enlow said the government is also under pressure. Walton said the FBI is litigating hundreds of FOIA cases, while also reviewing documents for public release in response to 45 FOIA requests.
CNN attorney Charles Tobin suggested at the hearing that Walton set a deadline in April — one year out from when the lawsuit was filed — to produce the requested records. Walton hesitated to grant the request saying such an order would force the government to prioritize his instructions over the numerous other FOIA rulings by fellow judges on the court.
Enlow argued the CNN proposal was both unprecedented and unreachable, given the extensive review documents undergo before release to check for information that is classified or related to ongoing investigations.
“They have been going through the 302s line by line,” the Justice Department attorney said, referring to the FBI interview reports.
Walton opted to allow the government to proceed with handing over 500 pages on Nov. 1 but said he may alter that production rate.
The judge ordered both parties to appear in court on Nov. 13 at which time the government must report back on whether the administration can request additional funding from Congress to up the number of federal employees preparing FOIA responses and also whether the process can be expedited.
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