Tag Archives: Freedom of Information Act

FOIA Machine Lubricates the Wheels of Access

Some holiday time-off-task offers a chance to get back to Poking Around – so where do I start?   With a post about FOIA…. Though I’m eager to poke around a broader sphere, I have been intending to share this newish tool for some time.

Maybe you too have sworn off cookies, shopping, toys that blink and blast, and melodramatic reruns on TV – time to stretch the brain. Admit it, you’ve always wanted to mine the wealth of public information/data — from what’s behind the torture revelations to the fine points of climate change to your personal information trail.

Though widely supported efforts to streamline the Freedom of Information were torpedoed in the waning days of the last Congress, the folks at the Center for Investigative Reporting are pressing on – inviting seekers of government information to participate in the beta test of a promising tool on which they have been working since 2012.

FOIA Machine, a Kickstarted open-source platform, free to the user, offers innovative features that may clear the path to the maze of public records. Initially supported with a John S. and James L.Knight Foundation Prototype grant,with support from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, FOIA Machine was put over the top by 2000 contributors to the Kickstarter campaign. In their Kickstarter promo FOIA Machine team leaders describe the project as designed 1) to automate submission of requests, 2) to track FOIA requests, and 3) to aggregate information about FOIA requests themselves.

FOIA Machine was originally designed by and for journalists. Still, the John S. Knight Foundation anticipated that “FOIA Machine will aid journalists and private citizens in accessing millions of important governmental documents around the world that are covered by freedom of information laws which exist in more than 90 countries.”

FOIA Machine allows inquisitive users to

  • Prepare a request under the FOIA or any other Public Records state law from the agencies databases
  • Send requests to a right officer and agency, or schedule it for later sending
  • Track the status of requests
  • Get the records back to their email and FOIA Machine mailbox
  • Create projects from the group of similar requests
  • Use automated request or request letter templates to prepare requests
  • Search for other users’ requests and responsive documents
  • Share their FOIA experience with other users

As with any request, the toughest step is the first one – formulating the information or data need. FOIA Machine offers a couple of options: Users may use the email-like form to select an agency and contact(s) by simply fillinf out the body of the message. If the user knows the contacts and agencies, or can locate that information in the FOIA Machine data base, that is included – if that information is missing, FOIA Machine promises to lend a hand. There’s also a guided “wizard” option to assist in the process.

When the information/data request is submitted FOIA Machine emails the identified contact(s). It will also send the requester a copy of that information. From that point on the requester and agency staffer are in touch with the requester responsible for follow up. Simultaneously, there is another email address cc’ed by FOIA Machine on every message. FOIA Machine tracks the status of the request and the agency response, then provides a log of each interaction in a central location.

Requesters have a number of options. They may keep the transaction public or private; if it’s public it will appear in FOIA Machine’s listing of public requests. Users may also use the system feature to generate requests if they want to rely on the tool for tracing only. FOIA Machine provides a social support component with an online discussion group and through Twitter @foiamachine.

Clearly, the more users the more robust the pool of shared information. The cumulative knowledge can help users figure out how to improve their chances of getting requests fulfilled. Shared experiences, including the agencies track record, can guide users’ approach – plus the record of past requests may eliminate the user’s need to initiate a time-consuming request.

After this beta testing phase FOIA Machine will be managed by the non-profit  Investigative Reporters and Editors.  Meet the FOIA Machine design team here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cir/foia-machine

 

 

 

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