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Document Friday: “Released in a Sanitized Form” … With a Twist.

March 19, 2010

Few things break a FOIA requester’s heart like tearing open an envelope from the CIA, seeing that they’ve released the document you requested, beginning to read it, and realizing that it’s been so heavily redacted that  you can’t discern its content.  This happened to me the other day.  Today’s hot docs will show what I’m doing to remedy the situation.

Last year, I combed through Evan Thomas’s history of the CIA entitled The Very Best Men. It’s a pretty fluid and fun read, but what makes the book really interesting to historians is that the CIA granted Thomas limited but unprecedented access to its records while he was writing.  I used the works he cited as leads to fire off some Mandatory Declassification Review requests to the CIA.  (Click here to see when to use MDR and when to use FOIA.)  Here’s one below:

My original 8 October 2009 MDR request for the memo on "goon squads."

Last week, the National Security Archive received the CIA’s response to my request.  The response time was actually pretty quick (but still past the 20 business days which the law stipulates).  I tore open the envelope, and rushed to see what gems my MDR request had unearthed.  I was sorely disappointed:

The heavily redacted memo released to me by the CIA.

As you can see, the CIA redacted almost everything.  A savvy document sleuth, however, would be quick to notice -despite the redactions- that the memo was signed by the CIA’s Deputy Director for Plans on 8 October 1960 and was related to “goon squads” and “Cuba.” Still, I was disappointed by the result.

So, I began to craft my appeal.   The CIA had argued that the information should not be released under section 3.3, exemption  b(1) of Executive Order 12958 (as amended). –That’s not as complicated as it looks.  It means the information was withheld because the CIA reviewer deemed that it “reveal[ed] the identity of a confidential human source, or a human intelligence source, or reveal[ed] information about the application of an intelligence source or method.”  In my attempt to counter this exemption, I took another look at Thomas’s book.

Then I saw something that made my jaw drop.  The redacted portion of the document had already been quoted verbatim in The Very Best Men! Read the excerpt below to judge for yourselves if it the nearly 50-year-old memo constituted a National Security threat and was rightly kept from the public by the CIA.

Endnotes from The Very Best Men by Evan Thomas which quote verbatim the information redacted by the CIA. "I noted with great interest the discussion of the use of goon squads in the minutes of the November 1 meeting.... I would greatly appreciate receiving, in due time, a report on the progress you have realized in expanding your capacity for this type of action."

In my appeal, mailed yesterday, I argued that since the redacted info was already in the public domain, its redaction was no longer needed to protect national security.  I also argued that since it was unlikely that the conversation mentioned confidential sources or methods, the Executive Order’s b(1) exemption was probably applied in error.  Finally, I urged the CIA to take Obama’s day-one instructions to executive agency heads to heart.  As the president explained, “The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.”

My 17 March 2010 appeal to the CIA's redactions.

I’ll let you know what I hear about my appeal.  In the meantime, this isolated FOIA experience has confirmed to me that the Archive’s 2010 FOIA Audit’s finding was correct.  Despite a clear message from the Obama Administration, the CIA has, as yet, failed to adopt a “presumption in favor of disclosure.”

Hopefully Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s 16 March 2010 (Sunshine Week) memo to agency heads “requesting” that they redouble their FOIA efforts will yield fewer “dubious secrets” like this.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 8, 2010 6:32 pm

    What’s the fee schedule for MDRs? I searched the National Archives site but could not find it and FOIAs to agencies like the CIA and DIA for information have yet to be answered.

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