Using the Freedom of Information Act to get information from the government is like waiting for ketchup to flow from a new bottle. Both often take longer than they are supposed to.
The act that gave citizens the power to request information from federal government files celebrates its 40th anniversary on July 4. But those seeking data continue to encounter long delays despite a 2005 order by President Bush to clear the unanswered backlog.
A new study released Monday found one requester has been waiting 20 years for the State Department to produce documents it has about the Church of Scientology.
Two more unanswered requests were made in 1988 and three in 1989, according to the survey by the National Security Archive, a private research group at George Washington University.
Five agencies - the State Department, Air Force, CIA, the Justice Department's criminal division and the FBI - still haven't answered some requests made 15 or more years ago, the Archive found.
The Archive is a heavy user of the act and, with aid from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, does periodic audits of how well the law is administered.
The latest study concluded backlogs are "out of control." For most federal agencies, meeting the law's deadline for a response in 20 business days "is an exception rather than a standard practice," the study said.
"Forty years after the law went into effect, we're seeing 20 years of delay," said Archive director Tom Blanton. "This kind of inexcusable delay by federal agencies just keeps us in the dark."
Among the findings from responses by 57 agencies to the Archives' Jan. 29, 2007 FOIA request for data on backlogs:
_Only four agencies reported no backlog: the Small Business Administration, Army Department Materiel Command, Naval Education and Training Command and Labor Department Employee Benefits Security Administration.
_Twelve agencies had requests pending 10 years or more.
_Ten agencies misreported their oldest pending FOIA request to Congress in annual reports required by law: the Agriculture Department Animal and Health Inspection Service, Air Force, Commerce Department, CIA, Director of National Intelligence, FBI, National Science Foundation, State, Treasury, and Justice's Office of Information and Privacy, which is supposed to provide governmentwide guidance on FOIA compliance.
_One-third of the agencies that received the January Archive request on backlogs have not responded. Twelve agencies still have not responded to the Archive's 2005 request for similar data.