Freedom of Information Act responses can be particularly protracted with the Defense Department, and are only effective when the requests are very specific.
“The place where the Defense Department gets extremely difficult to work with is if they have to collect a lot of information,” former Washington Post database editor Sarah Cohen of Duke University said. “It can take six months to a year.”
The best approach to FOIAs on the Pentagon beat is to direct your requests to local bases, where press officers tend to be more effective at getting timely responses, Cohen said.
Questions that are compound or require extensive data mining likely won’t get a timely answer – or any answer – from the press shop. Keep requests narrowly focused for press officers, and reporters will usually get a quick response, says Lance Hampton, foreign policy specialist at the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
However, reporters should always build in a few days to get answers, and assume it’s not going to take just a day for even for the most basic information.
Some public information officers may try to drive away reporters because they don’t want to give up information on their contracts. “We’ve never done that before” or “No one’s ever asked us for that before” are common dodges used by public affairs officers, according to a tip sheet Fabey, of Aviation Week & Aerospace Daily, did for Investigative Reporters and Editors. (Catalog of Fabey’s documents for IRE. Downloadable by IRE members).
The response implies that because no one has asked for information, a contract or a database before, it’s not publicly available. Fabey encourages reporters to ask public affairs to cite specific reason for their denial.