As the country — and much of the world — hunkers down amidst the rapidly ballooning coronavirus pandemic, one of America's premier legal institutions had decided that this is the right moment in history to up their obfuscation game, and toss another shroud of mystery on top of their already mysterious operations. As of this week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation will no longer accept digitally submitted Freedom of Information Act requests and is now requiring anyone who wants to legally access FBI files to submit their request on paper, by mail.
"Due to the emerging COVID-19 situation, the FBI is not accepting electronic Freedom of Information/Privacy Act requests or sending out electronic responses through the eFOIPA portal at this time," reads a notice at the top of the FBI's FOIA page.
"You may still submit a FOIPA request via standard mail. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding."
The Freedom of Information Act, a legal mechanism by which people can obtain access to certain forms of federal records that would otherwise remain unpublished, is one of the key tools used by reporters and government watchdog groups to pull back layers of government secrecy in the public's interest.
The FBI's note matches reporting from BuzzFeed News, published Tuesday, which included a letter from a Justice Department lawyer to an attorney who frequently represents the media company.
"The bad news is that the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation is forcing FBI to drastically reduce its FOIA processing because it cannot do the work remotely, due to the system’s security constraints," the DOJ attorney explained. "The FOIA processors need to be on-site to do the work, but they are too closely positioned to be able to conform to the new social distancing guidance. FBI is working on a response, but it is not clear when it will have one. And the production scheduled for the end of this month is now on hold, along with productions in many other cases."
Per the DOJ email, it seems as if the main issue is that the FBI employees who handle the digital FOIA requests usually sit too close to one another to be able to do the work safely, under the mandate of social distancing.
Adding to the FBI's bizarre policy change is the fact that the coronavirus has been shown to survive on certain surfaces although, the duration of the virus's lifespan depends on the material itself. (It is not, however, transmittable though email.) Which makes the FBI's demand that requesters interact with more potentially contaminated items — stamps, mailboxes, post offices — rather than submit digitally, seemingly all the more counterproductive.
Mic reached out to the Department of Justice for clarification on their new policy. We will update this story if they respond.