If history is any indication, we could be finally reading Hillary Clinton’s secretive personal emails sometime after the 2016 election. The law responsible for permitting the public to demand access to undisclosed information, the Freedom of Information Act, is a notorious bureaucratic snail.
It took one ProPublica reporter 4 years to get information on the number of TSA complaints in 2008.
This week, it was revealed that Hillary Clinton set up a personal email account to avoid having her communications at the Department of State tracked. For some appointees, like the Secretary of State, emails sent through official channels are subject to disclosure requirements.
So, major news outlets have demanded to see her personal emails, and the State Department’s FOIA office responded, “We will undertake this review as soon as possible; given the sheer volume of the document set, this review will take some time to complete.”
So, how long will that take? Ironically enough, the government does a great job publishing statistics of the average wait times for FOIA requests at most federal departments (in awesome 90s-style 3D bar charts).
At the Department of State, for 2013, the modal time for an “expedited” FOIA requests was 2–3 months—and, some can take more than a year (graph above).
If the FOIA request is “complex,” which Clinton’s emails might be, the picture is even worse: there are 1,315 requests that took over 400 days as of 2013.
As someone who is currently in the process of a FOIA request, I can personally attest to the utter frustration of the process. The application, itself, is like dealing with the DMV on steroids and there’s virtually no customer service.
The fine folks who work these offices are really quite nice, once you can get a hold of one on the phone. But, they’re overburdened, with little hope for future resources.
The FOIA request for Clinton’s emails might get fast-tracked, and we could be reading them in the coming weeks. Or, the FOIA request could be more like a glorified time capsule, and our great-grandchildren will enjoy reading them for the first time as a history lesson.