Tag Archives: National Security Archive

Independence Day Birthday Greetings and a Public Spotlight on FOIA at 48

On my first day working in the DC office of OpenTheGovernment.org I was introduced to the security system, access code 7466.  Colleagues seem bemused that I did not immediately recognize this as July 4, 1966, date of the initial passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  Since then the code has changed and I have learned more than I ever expected to know about FOIA.  Truth to tell, I have come to have enormous respect for this fundamental legislation, the bulwark of our nation’s protection of the people’s right to know.

Though some would say that FOIA is more honored in the breach than in the observance I worry much more about the fact that, for far too many of us, FOIA has come to be synonymous with national security, the province of attorneys and journalists, a mysterious process too pricey, too arcane, too complex for mere mortals.  In truth, FOIA is an indispensable tool that is available and accessible to the rest of us, which is why we need to engage in the ongoing hoopla surrounding FOIA as it approaches middle age….

Like most Americans FOIA, at the tender age of 48, is not about to sit on the shelf. Instead, FOIA is hot, ready to strut its stuff, retool, reinvent, whatever it takes to embrace the political and technological challenges of the day.  FOIA is taking its turn on center stage.  Everyone goes through this as the Big 5-0 approaches – not a bad idea for laws to pause for reflection at the same pace.

The 48th birthday celebration for FOIA blasted off on June 24 when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014.(  http://www.leahy.senate.gov/download/alb14471 )

The intent of the bill is to significantly restrict the government’s ability to withhold information by citing what is known by insiders as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.   The act also strengthens the FOIA ombuds Office of Government Services (OGIS), promotes more proactive online access to government information, and pushes back on agency attempts to weaken the 2007 Open Government Act amendments.  An earlier, less stringent, bill has already passed unanimously in the House. (FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, February 2014)

Response to the Leahy-Cornyn proposal is immediate and generally positive from the open government community.  A quick google search will disclose comments by a host of advocacy groups of every stripe.  What matters now is that elected representatives understand that strengthening FOIA—the backbone of transparency and accountability — matters to “the rest of us,” the folks who care about food safety or the impact of fracking or the new EPA standards or transportation or children’s health or toxins or transportation safety or…..

It’s easy enough to brush up a bit on all things FOIA:

*If you’re the sort who likes to start from the beginning, check out the official FOIA website at http://www.foia.gov/index.html– keep in mind FOIA is a work in progress so if you see ways it can be improved, now’s the time….

*For specifics on FOIA at work, check out the National Security Archive, the unflappable agency that just keeps digging to unearth records long shielded by policy and practice from the public eye. http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/the_archive.html

*To learn about examples of the impact of FOIA as the force behind the headlines, take a look at the “FOIA Files” compiled by Sunshine in Government – see http://sunshineingovernment.org/wordpress/?page_id=1533

*The public ombuds within government is the Office of Government Services, a major target of the Leahy-Cornyn bill – Learn about OGIS at https://ogis.archives.gov

*More to the point, engage in the process.  The folks at the National Archives and Records Administration, a major player in all things FOIA, are currently re-thinking their role and processes.  It’s fun to join the discussion of the real people who really do the real work of tending the daily business of open government   http://blogs.archives.gov/foiablog/2014/06/25/foia-advisory-committee-begins-setting-priorities/)

*If you’re the voyeuristic type that just can’t get enough of this stuff, check out The Government Attic, a treasure trove of stuff that’s been gathering dust all these years, now released through the FOIA process – today’s favorite, the FBI files back when they had time to worry about “The Untouchables” (http://www.governmentattic.org/11docs/FBIfilesUntouchablesTV_1948-1962.pdf}

The point is, let your fingers do the walking, and you’ll be a FOIA fan in short order.

As a FOIA fan you’ll need time to prep for the celebration of FOIA’s happy birthday on the 4th.   You’ll want to mention to the visiting President that transparency matters to Minnesotans.  You’ll need to get up to speed and engage in the buzz that  FOIA is getting these days.

Take away – A lot has changed since July 4, 1966.  Access to information by and about our government matters more than ever – we the people are increasingly responsible to be independent seekers and evaluators of resources, to hold our government accountable.  By default information access, open government, accountability will fall into the abyss of “everybody’s business and nobody’s business.”

As citizens it is a privilege to commemorate the birthday of FOIA by paying attention!  Those who shaped the fundamentals of our independence had a lot of confidence that we the people were the best deciders and that our decisions rest on good information by and about the government.   FOIA matters to all of us.

Besides, when approached in the proper spirit, birthday celebrations, even for  monumental laws approaching 50, can end up being pretty entertaining.

 

 

 

 

Rosemary Award – A Reminder that Constant Vigilance Matters

The wait is over – the votes are in!  And the winner of the Rosemary Award is Director of National Intelligence James Clapper,  named today as recipient of the uncoveted award for worst open government performance in 2013.   Clapper topped a high profile list of “secrecy fetishists and enablers” for his resounding “No, Sir” response to Senator Ron Wyden’s question: ”Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”   — a comment Clapper later referred to as the “least untruthful” answer possible to congressional questions about the secret bulk collection of Americans’ phone call data.

The Rosemary Award, conferred by the National Security Archive, (not to be confused with the National Security Agency) is named after President Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods who testified she had erased 18½ minutes of a crucial, possibly incriminating, Watergate tape by somehow manipulating an inadvertent bodily move that involved answering a phone while holding her foot on the pedal of her tape transcribing device. *

The Rosemary Award also recognizes other individuals identified by the National Security Archive as “Clapper’s fellow secrecy fetishists and enablers including General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, former FBI director Robert Mueller, the National Security Division lawyers at the Justice Department, and President Obama

Though the approach is light-hearted, the intent of the Rosemary Award is to “highlight the lowlights of government secrecy” and, by implication, to emphasize the responsibility of Americans to hold their elected and appointed government officials accountable.

For a full description of the rationale for the decision re. this year’s Rosemary Award, along with background on the National Security Archive click here. (www.narchives.org)

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  • Visual images of Rose Mary Woods’ demonstration of how she manipulated these antique instruments once common in government and corporate offices are available online at www.narchives.

 

Transparency at the Top – National Security Archive Offers “Constructive Criticism” to Federal Agencies

A passion for access to government information may be an acquired taste, acquired by a select view.  Still, an informed public depends on the hundreds of journalists, public servants, watchdog agencies, librarians, scholars and others meeting this week in our Nation’s Capitol during Sunshine Week to advocate for transparency throughout the federal government.  A host of public pronouncements and discussions reflect how the federal government is living up to the Administration’s commitment to transparency.   Though most of us will never file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, it matters that FOIA is in place and that someone cares.

The National Security Archive, one of the major watchdog agencies in DC, is out today with their critical assessment of transparency circa 2013.  The title of their report sets the tone:  Freedom of information Regulations: Still Outdated, Still Undermining Openness.

According to the NSA report “the majority of [federal] agencies have not updated FOIA rules to meet either Obama’s 2009 Order or Congress’s 2007 Law.”  The assessment is based on a survey of 100 federal agencies conducted by the NSA.

Anticipating progress on transparency in the second Obama Administration the NSA offers a checklist of “Top Ten Best FOIA Practices” for agencies to work off as they update their frequently outdated regulations.  Basically, the best practices promote direct communication between agencies and requesters, eliminate foot-dragging and other delays, make the entire process itself more transparent and incorporate an appeals process.

NSA itself maintains a lively website tracking requests and progress in opening the files of the federal government to the public.  The Archive blog, Unredacted, offers a regular – and fascinating – glimpse into what an informed public needs to know.

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:·