Midst the hoopla and expressed patriotism of the Fourth of July it’s easy to miss the celebration of a birthday – not of the Constitution but of the day that President Lyndon Johnson grudgingly signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) News media, researchers, bloggers and the general public love to employ – and to criticize – FOIA and its near half century of implementation.
Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive (NSA), a major submitter tens of thousands of FOIA requests, strikes a positive note on the 46th anniversary of landmark legislation: “We requesters always complain about the constant delays, the bureaucratic obstacles, the processing fee harassment, and the excessive government secrecy; yet the FOIA actually produces front-page rests every year that make a real difference to citizens and to better government.”
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), posted a positive blog on July 4th. Entitled “5 Things the Public Wouldn’t Know Without FOIA, posted by Dana Liebelson; the list includes five long buried records of a mix of critical events ranging from the 702-page document detailing illegal CIA activity to insider training to the location of 122 levees identified but kept secret by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The problem, advocates for open government agree, is in the enforcement of what is good legislation, hard-won by relentless champions.
Though Americans are regularly affected by records liberated by federal watchdog agencies such as the National Security Archives and POGO, relatively few have the experience of submitting and tracking a real-life request for information. Matt Ehling, Twin Cities documentary producer, president of Public Record Media, journalist and intrepid researcher, is one citizen who has exercised his right to access:
Here is Matt’s story in his own words:
Here’s my experience with FOIA in the couple years that I’ve used it intensively:
The federal FOIA law is, for the most part, having major enforcement problems. While I can get Minnesota government agencies to respond to our state level Data Practices Act, I have had real trouble getting material back from federal agencies.
For example – for two years, I have been trying to get a series of documents out of the Coast Guard, with no success. After seeing an Associated Press article in early 2011 about the federal DHS subjecting FOIA requests to political scrutiny, I sent a request to Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which the Coast Guard is a component, to see if they had interceded in my Coast Guard request.
DHS initially denied having any documents related to my request. I told them that – at minimum – they must have the request itself on file, as well as processing paperwork. They eventually sent me six pages of documents related to the processing of my DHS request, with an e-mail recipient’s name blacked out.
I submitted an administrative appeal to contest the redaction of the recipient’s name, and waited for several months for a reply. Eventually, I received a letter from an administrative law judge who had reviewed the appeal, and ruled in our favor. He remanded the issue back to DHS, and urged them to review their redaction. As of today (another several months later) DHS has not acted on this matter.
In addition, the Coast Guard has still not produced any documents after two years.
I am currently in federal court on another FOIA matter, trying to get the Justice Department to release legal opinions about the use of lethal force via UAVs [Unarmed Aerial Vehicles] within the jurisdiction of the United States. They denied my request for these documents at the end of last year. There are several related suits currently underway (by the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Times, and the First Amendment Coalition.)
Documents are here:
At last report Matt was in a quandary about mixed – actually contradictory – messages from the Justice Department concerning the disposition of this more recent case.
As anyone who has submitted a FOIA request knows, Matt’s experience is typical. Time will tell the outcome and its ramifications – and Matt is a patient and persistent requester with a positive mental attitude. The articles by Tom Blanton at NSA and Dana Liebelson at POGO engender hope and affirm that, though the system may be slow, FOIA states unequivocally that freedom of information is a basic tenet of an open democracy.
A great help to those who may lack the knowledge or chutzpah to submit a FOIA request would be an opportunity to hear from individuals and organizations in this community who have made the leap into the bureaucratic abyss. If you have experience you are willing to share, please contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are willing to share the story of your quest, regardless of the outcome, your experience will be shared with others who have an information need and a right know. It would be a great way to celebrate the 46th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act.
Selected listing of articles on FOI issues previously posted in Poking Around:·