Tag Archives: FOIA

Sharing and exercising the inalienable right to know!

It was just a few days – and an eon – ago that my-post-in-progress focused on President Obama’s signing of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Passage of the FOIA Improvement Act represents the work of advocacy groups, activist members of Congress, and a concerted effort on the part of members of the press, civil libertarians, good government groups and informed citizens to overcome corporate and other resistance to updating the fifty-year-old legislation.

The President’s signature on June 30 gives cause to celebrate the people’s right to know. That moment was lost in 4th of July pyrotechnics and, sadly, in racial tensions that boiled over in the past few days. As the nation reels from the events in Dallas, Falcon Heights and Baton Rouge, thoughts of FOIA and the urge to celebrate move to the back burner. The right to know is lost in the mix as an edgy citizenry focuses on the right to bear arms to the exclusion of thoughts of the inalienable right to know. Transparency and the fine points of open government seem esoteric, remote, irrelevant.

And yet, the more I consider our plight the more I realize that the right to know is at the very core of our effort to sort things out. I remind myself of the wise words of Christopher Dodd who underscored the fact that “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.”

How do we know what’s happening around us? We are challenged to think about how we know what we know, who and what determine what we know, who/what are the gatekeepers, what is the role of the media? How do social media challenge the norms, the filters, and the control of the communications media? Who owns and thus controls the channels of communication? Are unfettered exchanges of ignorance and opinion on social media enough to sustain an informed democracy? How do we judge our government – local, state and national – in terms of transparency and accountability to the body politic?

The focus of FOIA is on access to information by and about the government. For many that suggests information related to national security, certainly a prime concern. Still it’s the tip of a complex information infrastructure that is more subtle, more nuanced – information about what’s killing the bees, who’s monitoring the transport of hazardous oil through our cities, why are we plagued with opioids, do GMO’s matter? And what’s all this about climate change?

Access to accurate, unbiased, timely, useful and usable information by and about the government is a fundamental right that is implicit in every aspect of our lives. The right to know is a grounding principle upon which all Americans can agree – if we think about it. The FOIA Improvement Act is a key piece of a complex challenge that faces all of us. It involves trust in government, skills of access, a free press that endorses bold investigative reporting, access to technology, and a shared presumption that every American has the right to know.

These are times that demand that we all take a deep breath to learn about and reflect on basics, including the fundamental right to know. It’s not headline-grabbing stuff, but the right to know is uniquely American. It is a shared right, one that is not and cannot be reserved to the “elites.” It is a shared right that is uniquely deserving of public attention:

The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people. ~ Louis D. Brandeis

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Matt Ehling, Intrepid Researcher, Invokes FOIA – and Waits

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:

 UAV  http://publicrecordmedia.com/freedom-of-information-act-paperwork-office-of-legal-counsel-drone/

 

 Coast Guard  http://publicrecordmedia.com/freedom-of-information-act-us-coast-guard/

 DHS  http://publicrecordmedia.com/department-of-homeland-security/

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 (mtreacy@onvoymail.com).  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:·

 

 

 

International Right to Know Day

Though you may not read or hear much about International Right to Know Day on September 28, 2010, the astounding fact is that NGO’s, press groups and others in over forty nations worldwide will be taking a moment to celebrate the essential, if implicit, human right.  Since its inception in 2002 the goal of RTK Day has been to raise global awareness of individuals’ right to access government information and to promote access to information as a fundamental human right.

The underlying principles echoed throughout the celebration of RTK Day are that public interest takes precedence over secrecy and that public bodies play a proactive role as vehicles of public access.  Though transparency has become a buzz word at every level of government, organizations and advocates who are truly concerned might well take a collective deep breath and review the reality.  For advocates laboring in the local vineyard there is strength to be found in the fact that committed colleagues in a host of nations are making waves and even progress.  While Canada celebrates International RTK – and the right itself – with great gusto other nations ranging from Bulgaria to China to Nigeria believe, work and are taking concrete steps to promote the right to know as a basic human right.

One example of work in progress is the extensive draft report currently being circulated for discussion throughout Europe.   Access Info Europe and the Open Knowledge Foundation, in collaboration with Open Society Institute Information Program, are holding a “public consultation” on open government data and the right of access to information based on that document that bears the working title Beyond Access. The draft report assesses the current status of open government data and the right to reuse, offering a current and inclusive review of movements, examples and comments on future directions.  It’s worth a look.

FOI Advocates offers an excellent mix of ideas of ways that individuals and organizations of virtually every stripe can celebrate RTK Day 2010 – it’s specific, thought-generating and very useful.  It’s not too late to turn out a letter to the editor, an exhibit or a quick self-assessment of what your or your organization is doing to promote – or inhibit – access.

Rummaging in the US Government’s Attic

As an inveterate rummager I take unending delight in this uber blog, a powerful if understated blog that aims to provide “fascinating historical documents, reports on items in the news, oddities and fun stuff and government bloopers.”

Properly outfitted with the Freedom of Information Act a volunteer crew scavenge relentlessly in federal public documents heretofore hidden from public view.  They then post the most delicious government communications, reports and other documents on www.governmentattic.org.

For those of us who just can’t get enough, they manage a dynamic email distribution system that lights up the mailbox 2-3 times every week.  And that’s a lot of us.  The site does no marketing, is run by volunteers, and averages about 6000 unique users and 190 GB of downloads per month.

Forget the dusty holiday decorations, the kids’ broken toys, the wicker baskets and the bent spoons – go instead for some of this snippet listing of long-hidden treasures posted within the past few days on Government Attic.org.  Don’t stop here – poke around!   It’s like this EVERY week – rain or shine!  A rummage sale not to be missed but to be savored