Tag Archives: Matt Ehling

Inquiring Minds NEED to Know – Thoughts on Sunshine Week 2016

The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.  Justice Hugo Black 1886-1971 

“The mark of a truly civilized man is confidence in the strength and security derived from the inquiring mind.       Justice Felix Frankfurter 1882-1965

 These words of two Justices who served similar eras on the United States Supreme Court form the bookends of this post. They frame my “thoughts while thinking” about next week, March13-19, celebrated throughout the nation as Sunshine Week 2016.

Focus of the eleventh annual recognition of Sunshine Week reflects Justice Black’s emphasis on a free press. In this construct, government is the source and a free press is the necessary medium of access to information by and about our government. Traditionally, these essentials have been the emphasis of Sunshine Week, principles that have shaped my annual Sunshine Week thoughts and posts.

This year, for a mix of reasons, my thoughts keep turning to Frankfurter’s reference to the other essential, the inquiring mind. (I find consolation for my oversight in the fact that Frankfurter also observed that “wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late…”)

To give credit, it was local activist Rich Neumeister who struck me with his passionate defense of the “inquiring mind” that fuels his lifelong embrace of the spirit of inquiry to effect change.

Rich was just one of several committed open government advocates who spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon sharing their thoughts and experiences; they were the first interviewees in a fledgling video story of how and why the right to know matters. All had accepted an invitation to participate in an independent project with which I have the privilege of collaborating with Matt Ehling, President of Public Record Media.

The impetus of the project was to recognize the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA); the strategy is to do so by “putting a face on” the right to know. To do this we are calling on people who represent the myriad facets and faces of how open government laws make a difference in real life. We will videotape and share their ideas, their recollections, their knowledge and their suggestions, then share those stories with Minnesotans as a way to spread that spirit of inquiry and thus inspire others to exercise their right to know.

What emerged from these first interviews was one unifying thought – that the life force of the right to know is the inquiring mind. It is the spirit of the individual who realizes the power of information that leads to change at the neighborhood or the national level.

It is our contention that, by using technology to share the experiences, perspectives and insights of these and other individuals we will celebrate not just the fact of open government but the power of inquiry itself.

On the one hand the focus is on the keys to implement the rights codified in FOIA and related legislation — sound policies, efficient bureaucracies, a free press, and a thoughtful approach to digital age challenges.

Still, the power of the right to know rests in the inquiring minds of individuals who place a priority on good information by and about the government. It is these inquisitive agents of change who breathe life into the right to know. They exercise that right by harnessing the power of information to improve their lives, their neighborhoods, their institutions.

In turn, they share their passion for inquiry and their knowledge of the channels of access, especially with young learners who too often know more about the how’s than the why’s of information access.

 

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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:·