Skip to content

FACA Surveys, ICE’s “Egregious” FOIA Violations, the FBI’s Convoluted FOIA Search Process, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 6/25/2015

June 25, 2015
FACA

The FOIA Advisory Committee.

The FOIA Advisory Committee’s subcommittees on both fees and oversight and accountability have each sent out surveys to learn more about their respective issues. The federal FOIA Ombudsman, OGIS, recently reported that the oversight and accountability subcommittee – which the Archive’s FOIA Project Director Nate Jones sits on – issued a survey to each federal agency’s FOIA public liaison (FPL), who are statutorily mandated to reduce FOIA delays, increase transparency, understand the status of FOIA requests and resolve FOIA disputes. While the role of the FPL is “described in an Executive Order (Executive Order 13392, Improving Organization Disclosure of Information) and legislation (the OPEN Government of Act of 2007), the Committee has observed that how FPLs work within a particular agency seems to vary widely.” The subcommittee hopes that the survey results will shed light on what actions FPLs take at individual agencies to fulfill their mandate. For its part, the fees subcommittee sent out a survey to determine how to cut down on both the frustration and the confusion surrounding the administration of FOIA fees. Both surveys are available here.

US District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) egregiously violated the FOIA when it ignored Prison Legal News’ request for information on the telephone costs for immigrant detainees. ICE ignored two consecutive FOIA requests from the advocacy organization despite FOIA’s clear instruction that agency’s have 20 business days to respond to requests, absent clearly stated extenuating circumstances. Judge Pechman awarded Prison Legal News attorneys fees and costs for pursuing the lawsuit.

A FOIA lawsuit seeking FBI records related to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing is shedding light on the FBI’s convoluted FOIA search process. According to the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), “The latest testimony from the Trentadue case shows that reporters and members of the public who send FOIA requests to the FBI might not know that there are a myriad of different records ‘systems’ that they need to specify in order for a comprehensive search to take place.” These systems include the Automated Case Support system (ACS), which searches the FBI’s Central Records System. The ACS itself is split into three parts: the Investigative Case Management system (ICM), the Electronic Case File (ECF), and the Universal Index (UNI). The RCFP notes that “the ICM is a case management tool for documents involved in an ongoing investigation. The ECF is broader and contains all FBI law enforcement documents uploaded to the CRS except for some aged documents, or documents not uploaded for unknown reasons. Importantly, the ECF searches the text of the documents themselves.” Because the FBI routinely acts in bad faith when responding to FOIA requests and does not search the majority of its records systems unless specifically asked, FOIA requests to the FBI should include language requesting the bureau search all components of the ACS: the ICM, the ECF, and the UNI.

A Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge ruled this week that a public advocate is not needed in cases where “the legal question is relatively simple.” The ruling comes on the heels of the passing of the USA Freedom Act, which “directed that the court, which typically hears only the government’s side of surveillance cases, appoint ‘amicus curiae’ or a panel of technical experts to offer an alternative perspective in ‘novel’ or ‘significant’ cases.” The Cato Institute’s Julian Sanchez said of the ruling, “I’m a little worried. If the point is to ensure the court is hearing a different perspective, whether the [amicus provision] kicks in shouldn’t depend on whether an issue seems obvious before the court has heard any counter arguments.”

Project CAMBERDADA.

Project CAMBERDADA.

WikiLeaks released documents this week showing the National Security Agency (NSA) has spied on the last three French presidents. The documents detailing the snooping include “summaries of conversations between French officials on the global financial crisis, the future of the European Union, ties between [French President Francois] Hollande’s administration and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.” The Intercept also reported this week that documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, tried to compromise anti-virus software to track users, and tracked the email traffic of anti-virus companies “for reports of new vulnerabilities and malware” as part of Project CAMBERDADA.

The Obama administration announced a change in its hostage policy this week, noting that the Department of Justice will not prosecute families who raise ransom money for Americans who have been taken hostage overseas. The change is announced as part of a larger overhaul to the US’s hostage policy, which has been criticized for being dysfunctional and disjointed. The overhaul does not include the appointment of a “hostage czar,” an idea that had been broached to lead the multi-agency response to hostage crises. Instead, the administration announced the creation of a “fusion cell” that will be housed at the FBI and report to the White House through the National Security Council.

While the Senate Intelligence Committee reported last year that US Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officials visited a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan, the BOP responded to an ACLU FOIA request stating that it had no documents on the trip. BOP’s response to the FOIA request is confounding, considering the SSCI reports that BOP officials were “wow’ed” by the tour, having “never been in a facility where individuals are so sensory deprived.” The ACLU appealed the denial, arguing that “It’s completely implausible, we’re talking about federal employees traveling to an active war zone, making an inspection of a detention facility, making recommendations and training employees of another federal agency.” The Bureau of Prisons, unlike law enforcement and intelligence agencies, does not have the authority to classify records.

A computer glitch that hit the State Department’s system for running security checks on foreign visitors has ground the issuing visas to a halt. The glitch, which is rooted in a post 9/11 security measure that runs automatic scans of biometric data, hit US embassies around the world, and the State Department says “it will take time to catch up with two weeks of backlog, built up at an average of 50,000 visa applications every day.” The State Department attempted to use a backup system for the checks after the problems with the main system were discovered, but found the backup system “damaged and unusable.”

Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard was reprimanded by the Army for his “excessive involvement” in awarding a $492,000 contract to former classmates. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard was reprimanded by the Army for his “excessive involvement” in awarding a $492,000 contract to former classmates. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Documents obtained through the FOIA by the Washington Post show that the DOD reprimanded the Army’s deputy commander for operations in the Middle East, Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, for his “excessive involvement” in awarding a $492,000 contract to his West Point classmates. The reprimand was issued this February after the Army’s Inspector General conducted a three year investigation, spurred by a whistleblower’s allegations that the general had “abused his authority by awarding lucrative renewable energy contracts to his friends.”

NPR’s Caitlin Dickerson reported this week, relying on documents obtained by the FOIA and interviews, that the Army ran chemical experiments on WWII soldiers according to their race. The DOD declassified documents in 1993 revealing that it had exposed some 60,000 enlisted men to mustard gas and other chemical agents, but concealed that the tests were conducted by race. According to Dickerson, African-American, Japanese-American and Puerto Rican enlisted men served as proxies “so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect” enemy troops. The white soldiers were used as scientific control groups. One of the documents won by FOIA that contributes to the reporting is a DOD report dated June 20, 1944, entitled, “Tests on the Sensitivity of Whites and NISEI to Mustard Gas and Lewisite (Including Tests for Allergic Sensitization to Mustard Gas Following Experimental Exposure).”

“Tests on the Sensitivity of Whites and NISEI to Mustard Gas and Lewisite (Including Tests for Allergic Sensitization to Mustard Gas Following Experimental Exposure).”

“Tests on the Sensitivity of Whites and NISEI to Mustard Gas and Lewisite (Including Tests for Allergic Sensitization to Mustard Gas Following Experimental Exposure).”

This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with North Korea’s ongoing, historic drought and potential for increased food shortages in mind. This week’s #tbt pick is an October 2006 posting entitled, “North Korea’s Collapse? The End Is Near – Maybe.” The posting contains 19 FOIA-released documents, many of which are from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which attempt to answer how the food crisis of the mid-90s would affect North Korea politically and the rationale for supplying food aid.

Happy FOIA-ing!

CISA’s 10th FOIA Exemption Momentarily Held at Bay, the CIA’s Domestic Spying Efforts Come Under Scrutiny Again, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 6/18/2015

June 18, 2015
McConnell likely to continue quest to add 10th exemption to FOIA? Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

McConnell likely to continue quest to add 10th exemption to FOIA? Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The Senate voted against Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) attempt to attach CISA – the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015 – to the National Defense Authorization Act this week. CISA would, among other controversial provisions, add a tenth exemption to the FOIA covering all “information shared with or provided to the Federal Government.” The Sunlight Foundation’s Matthew Rumsey notes, “This is a victory, but it is likely only temporary. The Senate can — and likely will — consider the bill on its own anytime McConnell decides it is appropriate. In the meantime, transparency advocates will keep fighting to kill its harmful FOIA provisions.”

A FOIA request submitted by the ACLU and subsequently shared with The Guardian won the release of a previously classified 1987 CIA document outlining the agency’s guidelines for “human experimentation.” The document shows that the agency likely broke its own rules torturing terrorism detainees. The document specifies that “The agency ‘shall not sponsor, contract for, or conduct research on human subjects’ outside of instructions on responsible and humane medical practices set for the entire US government by its Department of Health and Human Services. A keystone of those instructions, the document notes, is the ‘subject’s informed consent’.” The document, which serves as a clarification of what the agency is permitted and prohibited from doing under EO12333, also grants the CIA director the discretion to “approve, modify, or disapprove all proposals pertaining to human subject research.”

AR 2-2 (U) LAW AND POLICY GOVERNING THE CONDUCT OF INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES (Formerly HR 7-1)

AR 2-2 (U) LAW AND POLICY GOVERNING THE CONDUCT
OF INTELLIGENCE ACTIVITIES (Formerly HR 7-1)

The CIA recently released 49 documents in response to a FOIA lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Yale Law School that raise alarming questions about the extent of the agency’s domestic spying. The documents, many of which are policy briefings on how the CIA complies with Executive Order 12333, “strongly suggest that the agency engages in an extensive amount of domestic spying operations that are largely kept secret from the American people.” The key takeaways from the documents are: the CIA regulation referred to as “AR 2-2″ governs a wide spectrum of the CIA’s activities; the agency’s domestic activity is often done in conjunction with the FBI; and “The rules for the handling of Americans’ information are so complex that the CIA struggled to apply them properly.” The documents raise questions about, among other things, what the CIA’s definition of “monitoring” domestic targets is, when monitoring devices may be used, and how “monitoring” differs from “electronic surveillance.” The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board is currently reviewing the Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism-related activities under EO 12333, and will hopefully shed more light on the CIA’s domestic actions.

The USS Pueblo docked in Pyongyang in 2010. For good measure, here is the official North Korean news agency report on the status of the spy ship: http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2013/201302/news21/20130221-37ee.html

The USS Pueblo docked in Pyongyang in 2010. For good measure, here is the official North Korean news agency report on the status of the spy ship: http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2013/201302/news21/20130221-37ee.html

The CIA has declassified five internal documents related to the agency’s performance in the lead-up to 9/11. They include a less-redacted version of a 2005 CIA inspector general report that found that the CIA did not have a comprehensive strategy for fighting al Qaeda before 9/11. The four other documents provide alternate views on the agency’s performance during this critical time period. The CIA has also released unclassified extracts from its March 2015 Studies in Intelligence publication – the agency’s in-house journal. The three articles released focus on autonomous systems, Laos, and the USS Pueblo.

On Tuesday the House of Representatives voted 247-148 to pass the 2016 intelligence authorization bill and increase spending on intelligence programs by seven percent. While most of the bill’s provisions are classified, known items include a ban on transferring Guantanamo detainees – six were transferred to Oman this week before the House vote –, and a provision that would block PCLOB – an independent agency charged with ensuring that the government’s terrorism efforts don’t infringe on privacy and civil liberties – access to information on covert programs. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima reported that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee advanced the PCLOB provision after being angered by an opinion piece penned by PCLOB’s chairman. PCLOB is entitled by law to have “access to all relevant reports and material from any executive branch agency. It may also interview government personnel and ask the attorney general to subpoena the production of any relevant information from the private sector.”

The FBI recently briefed members of the Senate on its aerial surveillance program, assuring Congress – while refusing to answer certain questions about the program – that its “plane surveillance program is a by-the-books operation short on high-definition cameras — with some planes equipped with binoculars — and said only five times in five years has it tracked cellphones from the sky.” The Senate briefing was spurred by the Associated Press report last month that the bureau was operating a small air force of 115 planes across the country, some of which carried cellphone surveillance technology “generally used without a judge’s approval.”

The Department of Justice has acknowledged that there are currently two ongoing investigations into whether or not the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General destroyed evidence during the investigation into former National Security Agency (NSA) officer Thomas Drake. Drake began cooperating with the Pentagon’s IG investigation of the NSA’s surveillance powers in 2002 and 2003, and was charged by the government in 2010 under the Espionage Act. The charge was dropped in 2011 in a case that US District Court Judge Richard Bennett called “unconscionable,” adding that it didn’t “pass the smell test.” The DOJ issued the acknowledgement in response to federal magistrate Judge Stephanie Gallagher’s own investigation into the controversy, which she launched after Drake’s lawyers accused the DOD IG of the destruction in April.

The Department of Justice sued US Investigations Services Inc. (USIS), the company that performed Edward Snowden’s background check, for billions in damages last year. USIS, which lost its contract after a whistleblower leaked that it “churned through” security clearance investigations, fraudulently signed off on over 650,000 clearances between 2008 and 2012, including checks for Snowden and the Navy Yard Shooter, Aaron Alexis. The Washington Post reported this week, however, that current security clearance contractors, KeyPoint Government Solutions and CACI, have a similar quota system and “are required to meet pre-determined numbers that dictate how many people they have to interview per day,” frequently resulting in “shoddy investigations.”

Today’s #tbt pick is chosen with the 36th anniversary of the signing of the SALT II Treaty by Leonid Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter in mind. Today’s #tbt pick is the transcript of the proceedings of the 1994 Musgrove Conference of the Carter-Brezhnev Project, entitled “SALT II and the Growth of Mistrust.” Learn more about the Carter-Brezhnev Project, which was sponsored by the National Security Archive, the Watson Institute at Brown University, and the Norwegian Nobel Institute, here.

The Carter-Brezhnev Project.

The Carter-Brezhnev Project.

Happy FOIA-ing!

Cybersecurity Bill Tacked onto NDAA Without Debate, ISCAP Continues to Largely Overrule Agency Classification Decisions, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 6/11/2015

June 11, 2015
Sen. Mitch McConnell tacks CISA onto NDAA without debate. Photo credit: The Hill

Sen. Mitch McConnell tacks CISA onto NDAA without debate. Photo credit: The Hill

Citing the recent hack of the Office of Personnel Management, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced he will attach “the Senate Intelligence Committee’s information-sharing CISA bill to the National Defense Authorization Act.” OpentheGovernment.org notes CISA – the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015 – “does far more to increase surveillance and undermine transparency than to protect against cyber threats.” Politico’s Tal Kopan notes that the bill has not been changed since it passed committee, despite privacy concerns, and that “The filing tactic means it will be very difficult for critics to amend CISA when the bill-as-amendment gets to the floor.” Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) has criticized the procedural maneuver and called for public debate on a bill that would, if passed, add a tenth exemption to the FOIA covering all “information shared with or provided to the Federal Government.” As Josh Gerstein reports, “That information could intentionally or unintentionally include information about private individuals, creating a new, opaque repository of government-held data on Americans and foreigners.”

The latest report from the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), housed at the National Archives and responsible to the President for policy and oversight of the government-wide security classification system, reveals that the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel (ISCAP) continues to overrule agency classification decisions in Mandatory Declassification Review appeals nearly 75 percent of the time. Specifically, in FY2014 ISCAP received 109 MDR appeals and ruled on 48, concerning a total of 451 documents. Out of the 451 documents reviewed for the 48 appeals, ISCAP “affirmed the prior agency classification decisions in 113 documents (25 percent), declassified 181 documents (40 percent) in their entirety, and declassified 157 documents (35 percent) in part.” Government-wide, “Agencies received 9,026 initial mandatory declassification review (MDR) requests and closed 7,798 requests.” The report goes on to note that, “Agencies reviewed 597,498 pages, and declassified 372,134 pages in their entirety, declassified 190,654 pages in part, and retained classification of 34,710 pages in their entirety. Agencies received 409 MDR appeals and closed 286 appeals.”

ISOOs 2014 Report to the President.

Images from ISOO’s 2014 Report to the President.

The ISOO report also shows that the number of both original and derivative classification decisions has fallen, while the cost to protect them has increased. Original declassification decisions, for example, dropped by 20 percent in FY2014 to 46,800 – a record low. The cost of protecting the decreasing number of secrets, however, rose to nearly $15 billion in FY2014, an increase of $3.25 billion from FY2013. The increase is due in large part to Defense Department “expenditures [of $3.2 billion] on information systems security.” The ISOO report also notes an increase in successful formal classification challenges.

The New York Times recently reported that in mid-June 2012 Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers “wrote two secret memos permitting the spy agency to begin hunting on Internet cables, without a warrant and on American soil, for data linked to computer intrusions originating abroad — including traffic that flows to suspicious Internet addresses or contains malware.” The documents further show that while the DOJ allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor “cybersignatures” that it could tie to foreign governments, the spy agency “sought permission to target hackers even when it could not establish any links to foreign powers.” The memos were part of disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and do not specify what criteria are used for selecting targets.

Four hours after President Obama promised to sign a law banning bulk surveillance of American phone records, his Justice Department’s national security chief John Carlin petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to permit the NSA to continue the collection for another six months. Carlin petitioned the FISA to grant the continued collection in light of the passage of the USA Freedom Act, which calls for an end to bulk collection of the phone records in six months, and despite the Second Circuit Court of Appeals May 7 ruling “that the government had erroneously interpreted the Patriot Act’s authorization of data collection as ‘relevant’ to an ongoing investigation to permit bulk collection.” The Second Circuit stopped short of issuing an injunction halting the collection, instead deferring to the then-ongoing USA Freedom Act debate.

SEAL Team 6 - most famous for killing Osama bin Laden - faces little oversight.

SEAL Team 6 – most famous for killing Osama bin Laden – faces little oversight.

Harold Koh, the State Department’s former top legal adviser, told the Times that the Navy’s famed SEAL Team 6 – best known for killing Osama bin Laden – “is an area where Congress notoriously doesn’t want to know too much” in spite of “recurring concerns about excessive killing and civilian deaths.” The Times further reported that Team 6 has, as part of its expanding mission, cooperated with the CIA on the Omega Program, which was modeled after the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program and “offered greater latitude in hunting adversaries” in Pakistan. Compounding worries of limited outside oversight of the rapidly growing unit is the fact that it is investigated by the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the SEAL Team 6 missions, and rarely refers them to Navy investigators.

Guantanamo detainee Majid Khan has accused the CIA of engaging in a wider range of torture and sexual abuse than was reported in the Senate report on the CIA’s torture program. The accusations – which include assertions that CIA interrogators “poured ice water on his genitals, twice videotaped him naked and repeatedly touched his -private parts’” – were compiled by Khan’s lawyers and made public last month. Khan’s account squares with those of lower-level detainees and “match[es] those of other detainees who have alleged that they were subjected to unauthorized interrogation techniques using water.”

A group of families whose relatives died in a 2012 CIA drone strike in Yemen “have filed suit in federal court in Washington on Sunday night, asking the court to declare that the strike was unlawful.” The complainants seek no monetary damages, and instead argue they are trying to shed light on, and bring a measure of accountability to, the lethal targeting program. Legal scholars say the suit, which “challenges the legality of the strike under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute,” is unlikely to succeed, as the torture law does not allow claims against American officials.

One of these leaks is not like the other? Photo: International Security Assistance Force.

One of these leaks is not like the other? Photo: International Security Assistance Force.

The federal judge in the General David Petraeus case has unsealed nearly three dozen letters of support filed on the general’s behalf from members of Congress, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and others. Petraeus “was sentenced to two years of probation and fined $100,000 for unauthorized removal and retention of classified information.”

While attempting to beef up security at the White House after numerous breaches, the Secret Service posted dozens of officers to sensitive assignments without security clearances. Secret Service director Joseph Clancy promised to fix the problem as soon as possible, noting that “the agency is struggling to work through an ‘administrative backlog’ in issuing security clearances with the higher-than-normal volume of new hires.”

A FOIA request filed by The Washington Post showed that the Special Operations commander in Central and South America, Army Brig. Gen. Sean P. Mulholland, was removed for repeated incidents of public intoxication. Mulholland “also got into altercations with civilians on two occasions last year after drinking at a golf club bar near his Florida headquarters, according to military records.” He is the fourth general to lose his job or be reprimanded for alcohol-related reasons in two years.

In response to an Archive FOIA request, the Department of Justice Office of Information Policy recently provided our office with a breakdown of how many times FOIA’s exemption b(5) was applied across the government in FY2014. The Archive filed a FOIA request for this figure because in its FY2014 summary report, OIP only provided the percentage of times b(5) was applied across all citations — without providing the total number citations the percentage was calculated from. In previous years, OIP provided a total number of times an exemption was applied across the government. OIP‘s response to our FOIA shows that in FY2014 b(5) was used 71,005 times government-wide. At the very least, OIP’s reporting should indicate the total number of citations the percentages it cites are calculated from. Even better, it should revert to reporting hard numbers.

Chinese CNE Capabilities

Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation.

This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with the recent hacking of the Office of Personnel Management by Chinese state-sponsored hackers in mind. This week’s #tbt pick is an October 9, 2009, report prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission entitled, “Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation.” The report “focuses largely on Chinese computer network exploitation (CNE) as a strategic intelligence collection tool. It examines Chinese CNE operations strategy and operations during conflict, key entities in Chinese computer network operations, cyber-espionage, an operational profile of an advanced cyber intrusion, and a chronology of alleged Chinese computer network exploitation events.”

Happy FOIA-ing!

Rep. Chaffetz tells Fed FOIA Head Melanie Pustay that She Lives in “La-La-Land” if She Thinks FOIA is Working Properly, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 6/4/2015

June 4, 2015
Chaffetz, left, tells Pustay, right, that she lives in "la-la-land" if she thinks FOIA is working.

Chaffetz, left, tells Pustay, right, that she lives in “la-la-land” if she thinks FOIA is working. Around 3:09’00’ mark.

The House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform held a two-day hearing this week on “Ensuring Transparency through the Freedom of Information Act.” The hearing was chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who cited in his opening statements a 2011 response from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to a National Security Archive request, in which ICE provided our office with 111 pages of previously available public information. Chaffetz called the hearing with the goal of better understanding why the FOIA process is frequently slow and opaque, and told the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) Director Melanie Pustay that she must be living in “la-la-land” if she thought FOIA was being properly implemented.

The first day of the hearing included witness testimony from members of the press, including Vice News’ Jason Leopold and former CBS anchor Sharyl Attkisson, and representatives of the open government community, including the Archive’s FOIA Project Director Nate Jones and the Campaign for Accountability’s Anne Weismann.

Jones argued that while FOIA is not a broken system, it is also not one that is living up to its potential. He emphasized, however, that passing legislation that would address the root of many contentious fee issues, place limitations on the oft-abused Exemption Five, and strengthen the FOIA ombuds office OGIS, would go far in improving FOIA implementation. Jones also called for an independent, robust FOIA “beat cop” to ensure agency compliance – a job the DOJ is currently not performing. Jones’ full testimony is available here and deserves a read for a thorough understanding of the big picture problems — and solutions — with current FOIA administration.

It’s worth noting that ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said during the second panel that, “we’re going to sit down and try to improve the bill that we have [HR 653] so that we can accomplish something. In other words, to do what the law was intended to do, that is the FOIA law. Give me the elements of what needs to be in that legislation.” Rep. Chaffetz also noted that he wanted to consider –even though the House Oversight Committee approved HR 653 in March and even though FOIA reform essentially received 510 yes votes and 0 no votes at the end of last year’s session– “limiting back the exemptions.” He went on to say, “how would we reconstitute those nine [exemptions], should they be three, should they be two, maybe it’s 18 and they just need to be much more specific. How would you take that section of FOIA and re-do it in such a way” that exemptions were not abused, and solicited comments in writing from the panelists that would allow the Committee “in a bipartisan way try to re-do that.”

Such an ambitious reform may make it less likely that FOIA reform will actually become law this session.  It will be even more difficult to re-write the FOIA legislation to “reconstitute the exemptions” in the Senate given the current dynamic in that chamber.  Since 2007, FOIA bills have passed out of House and Senate Committees four times without becoming law.

Other highlights from the hearing’s first day included Jason Leopold describing an unprecedented incident with the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, in which it agreed to process his FOIA request on the condition that he never file a FOIA request with their office again, or have anyone else do so on his behalf. Leopold also noted, anecdotally, that fewer than 1% of his FOIA requests were answered within the statutory 20-business day timeline. Newsweek’s Leah Goodman drew attention to the problem of anti-FOIA bureaucrats and “securocrats” who, because they frequently outlast administrations, flout presidential directives and attorney general memorandums calling for increased transparency. New York Times’ assistant general counsel David McCraw said that oftentimes a presumption of fear trumps a presumption of openness. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) also took the opportunity to express his wish to see the entire 9/11 Commission Report declassified.

The second day of the hearing featured a panel of Chief FOIA Officers from across the government and OIP Director Melanie Pustay. The government representatives presented a “rosy” view of FOIA at their various departments despite the previous testimony revealing the exact opposite, prompting Rep. Chaffetz to tell Ms. Pustay, who again trotted out misleading statistics on the government-wide FOIA release rates and FOIA litigation results, that she lived in “la la land.” Rep. Cummings noted towards the end of the hearing that while it was designed to determine how to improve the FOIA and how Congress could help agencies, it was “kinda hard to do that when you think you’re almost perfect, though.” The hearing made clear, among other things, that for more realistic assessments and insights into the FOIA process, a strengthened OGIS is needed. And for a better FOIA experience? Agencies must find a way to search emails.

The NSA seal.

The NSA seal.

The USA Freedom Act was signed into law this week in a symbolic post-9/11 shift towards reining in the sprawling surveillance apparatus. While the government maintains “robust surveillance powers,” the law will: end (in six months) the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of American phone records, instead storing them with private phone companies that the NSA will need to obtain a court order to retrieve; provide a public advocate that will be able to argue before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in some instances; and give private companies more leeway in publishing the government requests for user data they receive. While some argued of the dangers of discontinuing NSA bulk collection of American phone data – implying the program’s effectiveness – , studies have repeatedly “found no evidence that it had ever thwarted a terrorist attack.”

The USA Freedom Act will reinstate the FBI’s roving wiretap and lone-wolf provision. It will not, however, do anything “to affect another major Snowden revelation: the NSA’s collection of foreign Internet content from U.S. tech companies, a program that sweeps up lots of American communications. And it doesn’t address the bulk of Snowden disclosures about foreign intelligence gathering and the NSA’s attempts to exploit technology, such as encryption, for the benefit of U.S. intelligence.” AP reporting argues “it’s practically inconsequential in the universe of the National Security Agency’s vast digital spying operations, a technical overhaul of a marginal counterterrorism program that some NSA officials wanted to jettison anyway.” Secrecy News’ Steven Aftergood noted that while the legislation did not go as far as some on either side of the debate would have liked, time will tell if it is “the beginning of a recalibration of intelligence policy, or is it the most that Congress can accomplish and the end of the reform process”.

The Associated Press reported this week that, “The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government.” The surveillance conducted by this secret air force is “generally used without a judge’s approval.” The AP traced the government’s use of civilian surveillance planes to at least 13 fake companies, including KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation and PXW Services, which are all “registered to post office boxes in Bristow, Virginia, which is near a regional airport used for private and charter flights. Only one of them appears in state business records.” The companies’ names are redacted from DOJ Inspector General reports. Matthew Aid culled Federal Aviation Administration databases in his ongoing information on the topic, and has posted additional open source intelligence on the FBI’s aviation program.

Tom Drake, impoverished by DOJ persecution a federal judge later called "unconscionable," now works at an Apple store. Photograph by Timothy Jacobsen/AP Photo

Tom Drake, impoverished by DOJ persecution a federal judge later called “unconscionable,” now works at an Apple store. Photograph by Timothy Jacobsen/AP Photo

Federal magistrate Judge Stephanie Gallagher is launching an investigation into whether or not the Justice Department destroyed documents during the investigation into former NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, according to McClatchy. In 2002 and 2003 Drake began cooperating with the Pentagon Inspector General’s office investigating the NSA’s surveillance programs and was charged by the government in 2010 under the Espionage Act. The charge was dropped in 2011 in a case that US District Court Judge Richard Bennett called “unconscionable,” adding that it didn’t “pass the smell test.” Gallagher launched her inquiry “after Drake’s lawyers in April accused the Pentagon inspector general’s office of destroying possible evidence during Drake’s criminal prosecution, which ended almost four years ago.”

Reuters recently reported that the US tried – and failed – to launch a Stuxnet-like attack on North Korea. The attack against North Korea was launched simultaneously with the Stuxnet virus, which attacked Iranian nuclear centrifuges in 2009 and 2010 and was allegedly the result of US-Israeli collaboration, but failed due to the “extreme isolation” of Pyongyang’s communications system.

A Social Security Administration Inspector General report revealed that $20.2 million in Social Security benefits was paid “to more than 130 United States residents linked to Nazi atrocities over the course of more than a half-century, with some of the payments made as recently as this year.” The report further noted that nearly all of the payments were proper under policies in effect at the time, and that the benefits could not be suspended until an individual was deported. The investigation was spurred by Associated Press reporting.

‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’

 

This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with the Archive’s Nuclear Vault latest posting examining a new book containing the Nixon White House’s Top Secret considerations of nuclear options against North Vietnam in September 1969 in mind. This week’s #tbt pick is a Top Secret August 10, 1972, memo entitled “Kissinger,” in which Kissinger said: the “President’s strategy has been (in the mid-East crisis, in Vietnam, etc.) to ‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.”

Happy FOIA-ing!

 

Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones Testifies Before House Oversight Committee On Need for Fee Fixes, FOIA “Beat Cop”

June 2, 2015

This afternoon the Archive’s FOIA Project Director Nate Jones is testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for its hearing on “Ensuring Transparency through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),” which can be viewed here. Below is a copy of Jones’ expert testimony.

Ensuring Transparency through the FOIA

Ensuring Transparency through the FOIA

Statement of Nate Jones

Director of the Freedom of Information Act Project of the National Security Archive, George Washington University

Before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on “Ensuring Transparency through the Freedom of Information Act”

Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2154, Washington D.C.

 Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the Committee: thank you very much for your invitation to testify today about ensuring transparency through the Freedom of Information Act. My name is Nate Jones and I am the Director of the Freedom of Information Act Project of the independent, non-governmental National Security Archive, based at the George Washington University.

At the National Security Archive, we have filed more than 50,000 Freedom of Information Act requests in our efforts to challenge government secrecy, inform the public debate, ensure government accountability, and defend the right to know. We have conducted fourteen government-wide Freedom of Information Act audits that have displayed the inner-workings (or non-workings) of over 250 government agency and component FOIA shops. Our White House e-mail lawsuits against every President from Reagan to Obama have saved hundreds of millions of messages, and set a standard for digital preservation that the rest of the government has not yet achieved –as we know from the State Department. The Archive has won prizes and recognition including the James Madison Award for championing the public’s right to government information, an Emmy Award for news and documentary research, and the George Polk Journalism Award for “piercing self-serving veils of government secrecy.”

The key point that I would like to convey to you in my testimony is that the tremendous promise of the Freedom of Information Act –a tool that citizens can use to effectively and efficiently gain access to records produced by their government– has not been fulfilled. As any FOIA requester will likely tell you, using the FOIA to gain access to government records is far too frequently a huge challenge –often because government agencies want it to be one.

I would like to present to you today three of the largest barriers for Freedom of Information Act requesters; what I believe to be the overarching reason for these barriers; and how I believe the Committee can help to reduce them. The first barrier is agencies’ problematic (and fiscally unnecessary) use of FOIA fees to deter requesters from requesting government information. The second barrier is the increasing trend of agencies using FOIA exemptions, often Exemption Five, to censor embarrassing or inconvenient information that should be released. The third barrier is the inability of the federal government to harness technology to process FOIA requests and post FOIA releases online so that the public can have access to these released records more quickly. And finally, I’d like to point to the overarching problem that there is no real oversight of federal FOIA programs; no FOIA beat cop to ensure that agencies are effectively processing requests, not improperly withholding information, adhering to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act, and effectively and efficiently releasing information to their public.

But before I begin on barriers, I must note that there are dozens of exemplary agencies that have up-to-date FOIA regulations, complete most or all requests within the required time limit, waive FOIA fees as a matter of policy, consistently release as much information as is truly possible, and post releases online. Likewise, there are hundreds of star FOIA professionals that I have met during my service with the American Society of Access Professionals who really do have “transparency in their bones,” and place the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act above bureaucratic concerns and fear of embarrassment. To these agencies and FOIA specialists, thank you! I guess, in this case, the reward for competence is inconspicuousness.

Ms. Nesbit testifying on the importance of FOIA reform.

Ms. Nesbit testifying on the importance of FOIA reform.

Frequently, the first negative interaction a FOIA requester experiences with an agency is over fees; often because many agencies have adopted a strategy of using the specter of high FOIA fees to deter people from making requests. The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee, made up of government and non-government members including myself, has identified fees as the most frequently contentious issue in the FOIA process for those both inside and outside government. Miriam Nisbet, the former director of the FOIA Ombuds office, recently confirmed that some agencies use fees to dissuade people from filing FOIA requests.

The need for exorbitant fees to pay for FOIA requests is unnecessary from a fiscal perspective. According to the government’s own most recent figures (FY 2014), the 100 agencies covered by FOIA processed 714,231 requests at a cost of $441 million dollars –well worth it considering the value of a government accessible to its citizens. Total fees paid by FOIA requesters were just $4.2 million, less than one percent of the cost of implementing the Act.

The use of fees to dissuade people from making requests becomes even more questionable when one understands that the money collected from fees goes to the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund, not to defray actual agency FOIA costs; and, that as the statute is written, educational, scientific, and media FOIA requesters are not required to pay most FOIA fees, only everyday requesters are.

feechart

Many high fee estimates are also probably illegal. The 2007 FOIA amendments make it very clear that any time an agency misses its twenty-day statutory deadline to process a request, the agency is only allowed to charge copying fees to non-commercial requesters. Agencies, with the support of the Department of Justice, have improperly skirted the intent of these provisions so often that both FOIA bills currently pending in Congress include language (the Senate’s is ironclad) which should prohibit these fee hijinks, once and for all.

The second major barrier I would like to address is the improper withholding of information requested under FOIA. This Sunshine Week, White House spokesperson Josh Ernest repeated a Department of Justice figure touting a 91% release rate under FOIA. But this figure is extremely misleading. DOJ numbers ignore nine of the eleven reasons FOIA requests are denied, including improper no records responses, administrative closures, and “fee related reasons.” If you include all the reasons FOIAs were denied to get your data, the actual release rate is just over 50 percent –and many of those “partial releases” contain swaths of completely redacted pages.

More startling is the Associated Press’ recent finding that almost a third of all FOIA denials that are appealed lead to the release of more information. That is: when challenged, government agencies admit they wrongly withhold information from requesters almost a third of the time. The DOJ reports that in the last fiscal year, just 12,754 requests (3 percent of denials) were appealed. Extrapolating, this means that it is possible a staggering 71,024 or more requests were closed by agencies that withheld too much, or all of the information that requesters sought.

B(5) Used to prevent releasing embarrassing information? Not under the FOIA Improvement Act. https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/document-friday-the-department-of-state-was-hiding-this/

B(5) Used to prevent releasing embarrassing information? Not under the FOIA Improvement Act. https://nsarchive.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/document-friday-the-department-of-state-was-hiding-this/

As this committee well knows, the most oft-abused FOIA exemption is Exemption Five, which allows agencies to choose to withhold any “inter‐agency or intra‐agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency” as well as an agency‐claimed “draft.” This exemption, earlier characterized by John Podesta the “withhold it because you want to” exemption, is the go-to tool that agencies use to withhold embarrassing, incriminating, or –sometimes even– burdensome-to-process documents. In an emblematic (and ironic) misuse of Exemption Five, the Federal Election Commission once used it to censor its own guidance on when to use Exemption Five –even though it had already been posted on the FEC’s website.

Certainly, not all evocations of Exemption Five are improper. There are of course occasions where Exemption Five can and should be invoked to protect attorney client privilege and candid advice between officials. But its ever-rising use shows that it is being abused far more than it is being properly used. Just a week ago The Washington Post’s Al Kamen published an email about a potential traffic delay sent within the Department of Justice (the agency required to “encourage compliance” of the FOIA). This innocuous email was marked “ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION”, “ATTORNEY WORK PRODUCT”, and “SENSITIVE/PRIVILEGED COMMUNICATION”. The implication is clear: emails are marked this way so they can be “knee-jerk” denied using Exemption Five in response to FOIA requests.

Infuriatingly, Department of State officials are continuing their painstaking review of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails to withhold information under Exemption Five (a discretionary exemption) even though she herself stated that she wants them released for the public to see. Just days ago, the Department of State improperly used Exemption Five to attempt to censor a line where the former Secretary noted that “using private security experts to arm the [Libyan] opposition should be considered.” We must remain vigilant as their review continues that our access to our history of knowledge of our government’s operations is not “B5’ed away.”

FYI.

FYI.

Exemption Five’s power to deny records can be even stronger than the security classification system. Recently the Central Intelligence Agency cited Exemption Five’s deliberative process, not national security risks, to withhold the “Panetta Review,” an internal account of its torture program, from Vice reporter Jason Leopold. The reason: a declassification review would have in-all-likelihood led to the release of portions of the report; the broad latitude of Exemption Five allowed the CIA to withhold it all.

The Central Intelligence Agency may have learned of “the power of Exemption Five” during its declassification battles with the National Security Archive. The Archive has had much success convincing declassification reviewers and judges that many historic CIA documents no longer merit continued classification; we have had less success when the CIA uses Exemption Five. The Agency continues to hide the final volume of its history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion not by claiming that it contains classified national security secrets, but by claiming it is a “draft,” that its release could “confuse the public” and that, therefore, this document should remain hidden indefinitely.

The Appeals Court decision.

The Appeals Court decision.

Last summer, in a two-to-one decision, the DC Court of Appeals agreed with the agency. It wrote: “According to the FOIA requester, the CIA’s interest in protecting any contentious or sensitive issues discussed in the draft of Volume V has diminished over time. But unlike some statutes, such as certain provisions of the Presidential Records Act, see 44 U.S.C. § 2204(a), Exemption 5 of FOIA does not contain a time limit. We must adhere to the text of FOIA and cannot judicially invent a new time limit for Exemption 5.”

Fortunately, your Committee has taken up the Court’s challenge. The bipartisan FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015, HR 653, that you unanimously passed out of Committee this February contains two important provisions that will go a very long way toward curtailing agency Exemption Five abuse. It amends the law so that agencies cannot use Exemption Five to withhold information that is older than 25 years.  (The Presidential Records Act forbids the use of Exemption Five for all documents beginning twelve years after the president leaves office. Certainly, agency documents should not be withheld when presidential documents cannot be.) Second, the bill’s language stating that “records that embody the working law, effective policy, or the final decision of the agency” cannot be withheld under Exemption Five is highly lauded by the National Security Archive –and no doubt the 50 other organizations on the record supporting the most robust strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act as possible.

One warning though: as Congress closes some loopholes used to withhold information from the public, agencies will look for new ones. The current 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a dangerous provision for the vast expansion, government-wide, of the amount of information that can be withheld under FOIA’s Exemption Two, which covers internal agency practices. (The Supreme Court wisely curtailed this expansive exemption in its 2011 Milner v. Department of Navy decision).

Archive director Tom Blanton testifies before the Senate Judiciary on May 6, 2015.

Archive director Tom Blanton testifies before the Senate Judiciary on May 6, 2015.

Likewise, the National Security Archive has heard that the State Department is or will soon ask Congress for a new “Statutory” Exemption Three provision to exclude foreign government information. This, to quote my Director Tom Blanton, “Is a terrible idea.” As he correctly explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee: “Right now, such information earns protection only if it is properly classified, meaning that its release would harm an identifiable national security interest. Even with this limitation, the State Department routinely abuses the designation…A ‘foreign government information’ exclusion as a b-3 exemption would effectively import into our laws the lowest common denominator of foreign countries’ secrecy practices. Instead, the standard needs to be ‘foreseeable harm’ to our own national interests, with a ‘presumption of disclosure.’ We can lower our standards so diplomats are more comfortable cozying up to dictators, or keep everyone on notice that ours is an open society, and that’s where we draw our strength and our ability to address and fix problems.”

Thanks to the members of this Committee and their staffs for presenting legislation that will roll back the most oft-abused FOIA exemptions and for continuing to monitor, flag, and push back against potential new statutory exemptions which could undermine the FOIA.

The third barrier to access to information that I would like to highlight is the inability of agencies to harness technology to improve the records management and FOIA processes, a problem that members of the Committee have long sought to improve.

Perhaps a silver lining to the State Department’s email fiasco is that the public now has an inkling as to just how anachronistic record keeping systems are at the Department of State, and indeed across the federal government. When agencies, in 2015, still practice a “print and physically file” system to preserve email records, we know there is something direly wrong with the federal IT system.

Report showing VAST majority of official DOS emails not stored.

Report showing VAST majority of official DOS emails not stored.

According to a Department of State Office of Inspector General report, in 2011 just .006 percent of emails throughout the entire Department were saved.   The sad irony is that although former Secretary Clinton was likely in breach of record keeping laws and best practices, her personal email system preserved emails better than that the State Department’s system. Of course, neither Clinton’s emails nor the billions of deleted Department of State emails were searched and processed in response to FOIA requests. Because the Department of State relied primarily upon a “print and file” system to save digital records, a generation of our records has been lost.

The Department of State has borne the brunt of criticism for its willful deletion of federal record emails, but the problem is government-wide.  In 2008, the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) surveyed the government and could not find a single federal agency policy that mandated an electronic record keeping system agency-wide. The same year –seven years ago– the Government Accountability Office produced an indictment of the “print and file” approach, concluding that even the agencies recognize it “is not a viable long-term strategy” and that the system was failing to capture “historic records “for about half the senior officials” surveyed. Despite ruling after ruling requiring White House emails to be saved, the Office of Management and Budget and the National Archives and Records Administration did not act until 2012 to require agencies to preserve their email. Even then, agencies received a four-year grace period to start doing what the White House has done since 1994.

Today, right now, federal agencies are still not required to digitally preserve their emails. The deadline, set by NARA, is December 31, 2016 for all federal agency e-mail records to be managed, preserved, and stored electronically. Three years later, in 2019, agencies are supposed to be managing all their records electronically. Until then, federal employees will continue to be allowed to select themselves which emails they believe to be federal records, print them out, and file them in a box. As long as this practice continues, it is unrealistic to expect that more than .006 percent of all emails across the federal government will be preserved or searched in response to FOIA requests.

Additionally, the majority of agencies are not harnessing technology to improve FOIA processing. This year, the Department of Justice pointed to an increasing number of FOIA requests (probably a good thing more citizens are interested in obtaining federal documents!) and the “increasing complexity” of requests received as reasons for the government’s growing backlogs and oft-slow response times. I would add one more reason: the government’s slow adoption of technology to more quickly and efficiently process requests. It is my hope this Committee can prod government FOIA shops to follow the private sector’s lead (which also deals with larger and larger amounts of “big data”) and utilize e-discovery tools, automated tools to redact privacy and other information which must be withheld, and continue to move FOIA processing from a paper based FOIA process to a digital one.

Posting records electronically saves agencies time and money.

Posting records electronically saves agencies time and money.

The National Security Archive is also extremely concerned that twenty years after the passage of the E-FOIA Act, only 40 percent of federal agencies are following the intent of the law. Just 67 out of over 165 agencies covered by the Archive’s latest FOIA Audit –coauthored with my esteemed colleague Lauren Harper– are routinely posting documents released through FOIA and reducing the processing burden on the agencies and on the public.

Long FOIA delays and growing FOIA backlogs make proactive disclosure even more important. The zero-sum setting of FOIA processing in a real world of limited government budgets means that any new request we file actually slows down the next request anybody else files; older requests slowing down our new ones, especially if they apply to multiple records systems. The Department of State argues that since it is now processing former Secretary Clinton’s emails, all other FOIA requesters need to take a number, have a seat, and wait (or sue). The only way out of this resource trap is to ensure that agencies post online whatever they are releasing, with few exceptions for personal privacy requests and the like. When taxpayers are spending money to process FOIA requests, the results should become public, and since agencies rarely count how often a record may be requested, requirements like “must be requested three times or more” just do not make sense. Many examples of agency leadership –posting online the Challenger space shuttle disaster records or the Deep Water Horizon investigation documents, for example– have proven that doing so both reduces the FOIA burden and dramatically informs the public.

Our audit this year found 17 out of 165 agencies that are real E-Stars, which disproves some assertions that it is just too difficult to post released FOIA records online. The excuse most frequently given against online posting is about complying with disability laws; that making records “508-compliant” is too burdensome and costs too much for agencies actually to populate those mandated online reading rooms. In fact, all government records created today are already required to be 508-compliant, and widely-available tools like Adobe Acrobat automatically handle the task for older records with a few clicks.

The State Departments 508 Compliant Electronic Reading Room.

The State Departments 508 Compliant Electronic Reading Room.

The Department of State, notwithstanding its problems of FOIA and records management, leads all federal agencies in its approach to posting FOIA releases online. As an E-Star, State’s online reading room is robust, easily searchable, and uploaded quarterly with released documents – which allows requesters a useful window of time with a deadline to publish their scoops before everybody gets to see the product. State accomplished this excellent online performance using current dollars, no new appropriations. State’s FOIA personnel deserve our congratulations for this achievement. When Secretary Clinton’s e-mails finally get through the department’s review (which should not take long, since none were classified), they should be posted onto State’s online reading room, which will provide a real public service for those reading her e-mails.

In light of these problems, I strongly agree with the language in your bill that requires that agencies shall “make information public to the greatest extent possible through modern technology.” They have a long way to go, but it is high time agencies began harnessing the power of modern tech.

The final, overarching point that I would like to make for the Committee today is that the root cause for the FOIA problems and the underlying reason for much of the public unhappiness with the Freedom of Information Act that you’ve heard today is the lack of an independent, robust, organization that monitors, and forces FOIA compliance throughout the federal government –a FOIA beat cop, if you will.

ogisThe Office of Government Information Service, created by the FOIA reforms of 2007, may have been envisioned by Congress to play this role, but in my opinion, it has not yet. It certainly doesn’t help that it has not had a director for more than six months, notwithstanding the efforts of Acting Director Nikki Gramian.

This February, OGIS’s past director Miriam Nesbit testified to your Subcommittee on Government Operations: “If you want recommendations, reports, and testimony that have not had to be reviewed, changed, and approved by the very agencies that might be affected, then you should change the law.” She was right. As of now, OGIS is not independent and thus cannot serve its Ombuds role. Fortunately, your pending legislation will go a long way to fixing this.

Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, Ms. Nesbit also testified that while she believed OGIS should be independent, she did not believe OGIS “wants to or will be the FOIA police.” Nevertheless, when it was created in 2007, Congress gave OGIS the power to “issue advisory opinions if mediation has not resolved [a FOIA] dispute.” OGIS has completed over 3,000 FIOA mediations, but unfortunately in my view, has yet to issue a single advisory opinion.

I believe some type of “FOIA police” is needed to fix and prevent many of the incidences of unfair fee levying, decades-long FOIA waits, and improper withholdings that your Committee has heard about today. OGIS, to me, could be potentially well-suited to serve this role, but is not currently and unfortunately does not aspire to.

The Department of Justice Office of Information Policy also is not a FOIA beat cop that requesters can turn to. Its mission is to “to provide legal and policy advice to all agencies on administration of the FOIA” and also to “encourage[] agency compliance with the law and for overseeing agency implementation of it.” (OGIS is charged to “review” compliance.) Having worked with the professionals DOJ OIP for over five years, my sense is that the office does a superb job helping agencies with legal and policy advice, but has done far too little “encouraging” agency compliance with the law. When members of the Federal FOIA Advisory Committee met with the DOJ OIP last year, the office confirmed that the extent of the compliance was ensuring that agencies properly submitted their annual reports.

So the problem remains. Congress can and will pass good legislation with good ideas such as requiring agencies to regularly post FOIA releases online (1996) and prohibiting agencies from charging many FOIA fees if they miss their deadline (2007), but without a FOIA enforcer –from OGIS, DOJ, the White House, or some other entity– some agencies will continue to flout the law without consequence.

According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, this is precisely what happened at the Department of State. A high-level political appointee intervened and stopped the release of documents State Department FOIA professionals had determined could be viewed by the public without harm. A FOIA specialist was called into high level policy meetings to advise on how to hide documents from disclosure (including by marking them “deliberative process”). Other problems at State likely continue today, the Journal reports, “that there is no pressure on bureaus or embassies to respond to document searches in a timely fashion; that FOIA specialists hold little stature; and that there are no consequences for people who don’t produce documents requested.” The most troubling aspect is that these issues are not isolated to one department. Due to the absence of FOIA beat cops, this behavior –which your Committee has now seen many examples of– spans the federal government.

The current processes of “encouraging” and “reviewing” agency compliance with FOIA are not actually establishing agency compliance with FOIA. My fear is that without a robust enforcement entity, the Freedom of Information Act reforms included in HR 653 will not fundamentally fix the root cause of the problems your Committee has heard today.

Esteemed members of this committee: thank you again for holding this hearing today and for your support of the Freedom of Information Act. Thank you for your unanimous passage of HR 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015. Your dedication to this issue makes me hopeful that this strong FOIA reform will be enacted this session and that more documents will be released to more people, more quickly.

I ask the Committee’s permission to include this statement in the record, and to revise and extend these prepared remarks to include responses to the other witnesses today.

nate-jones-image

Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones.

Nate Jones is the Director of the Freedom of Information Act Project for the National Security Archive. He oversees the thousands of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) requests and the hundreds of FOIA and MDR appeals that the Archive submits each year.  An active member of the American Society of Access Professionals (the professional association of government FOI officers), he acts as liaison between Archive analysts and agency FOIA offices, and serves as the Archive’s FOIA counselor to the public. He is editor of the Archive’s blog Unredacted where he writes about newly declassified documents and FOIA policy. He has authored the Archive’s past five government-wide FOIA Audits, including The 2015 E-FOIA Audit: Most Agencies Falling Short on Mandate for Online Records. He earned his MA in Cold War History from The George Washington University, where he used FOIA to write his thesis on the 1983 “Able Archer” nuclear war scare.  He has produced The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook, the comprehensive declassified collection of documents on the incident.  His article, “Countdown to Declassification”in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, examines the intersection of Able Archer 83, nuclear miscalculation, and government secrecy.

 

Meaning of “Discretionary” Lost on Some FOIA Processors, Section 215 Sunset Fast Approaching, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 5/28/2015

May 28, 2015
FYI.

FYI.

The State Department’s use of FOIA’s discretionary b5 exemption – that allows agencies to withhold any “interagency or intra-agency communication,” as well as any agency-claimed “draft,” from the public – to unnecessarily hide a suggestion from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is emblematic of the abuse of the b5 “withhold it because you want to” exemption across the government. The State Department recently released a batch of Clinton’s Benghazi emails, including an April 8, 2011, email from Clinton to Jake Sullivan containing a private intelligence report entitled, “UK game playing; new rebel strategists; Egypt moves in.” In the email Clinton notes that “using private security experts to arm the opposition should be considered,” a suggestion that is withheld in the official release. The New York Times posted an unredacted version of the email to its website revealing the suggestion, begging the obvious question, why did the State Department use the “deliberative process” exemption to hide this information?

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee recently sought examples from the open government community, including the National Security Archive, of FOIA failures in preparation for its June 2nd hearing on systemic problems with the FOIA process. Nate Jones, the Archive’s FOIA Project Director, will be providing expert testimony. The Committee has also posted a form to its web site allowing members of the public to indicate which FOIA frustrations they’ve encountered, including “Excessive or inappropriate redactions” or “Lengthy delays.” Secrecy News’ Steve Aftergood notes that the scope of the Committee’s investigation into complaints about the FOIA process is “probably unprecedented.”

Sen. Dianne Feinsteins bill "ontains various mandates for how phone companies would be required to store the data." Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill “contains various mandates for how phone companies would be required to store the data, something privacy advocates argue amounts to a re-creation of the NSA database in private hands.” Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Surveillance legislation to rein in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) bulk collection of American phone records is facing an uphill battle in the Senate. The USA Freedom Act has already been approved by the House, but has failed to garner the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, and continues to face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) adamant resistance. If no compromise is reached, the authority that the NSA interprets as granting it the right to collect and store metadata from Americans’ phone calls – Section 215 of the Patriot Act – will expire on June 1. Sen. Diane Feinstein, in a tepid attempt at compromise, proposed new legislation that “rolls back a number of key provisions in the USA Freedom Act” in an effort to prevent the NSA’s surveillance authority from lapsing.

A Department of Justice Inspector General report shows that — for seven years — the DOJ failed to implement privacy rules or provisions for information collected under Section 215, which also “enables intelligence agencies to obtain court orders to gather all manner of records in foreign terrorism investigations.” A 2006 reauthorization of the Patriot Act required the Department to do so, however it failed to adopt rules that met the statute until August 2013. The IG report found ”a significant amount of the delay is attributable to the department, specifically to disagreements between the FBI and NSD [National Security Division] over how to craft the rules.”

Marcy Wheeler recently posted a table compiled by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) “showing the status of procedures Agencies follow to protect US person information when using data obtained under EO 12333” to her blog, Empty Wheel. The key takeaway is a depressing one, and is that 34 years after the Reagan-era Executive Order that is the legal basis for most NSA surveillance went into effect, “several intelligence agencies still don’t have Attorney General approved procedures,” including the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of National Security Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and the Department of Treasury Office of Intelligence and Analysis.

Representatives Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) have asked the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) to drop what they allege is a “retaliatory investigation” into Army Lt. Col. Jason Amerine “for whistleblowing to Congress over our completely dysfunctional system for recovering hostages.”Amerine says that the FBI formally complained to CID about his participation in the current Congressional investigation into hostage negotiating tactics, which was initiated after American hostage Warren Weinstein was killed in Pakistan in a drone strike this January.

A CIA interrogator filed a complaint in April 2013 with the agency’s Inspector General’s office seeking whistleblower protection from reprisal he allegedly faced for cooperating with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the CIA’s torture program. In documents obtained by VICE News in response to a FOIA lawsuit, the interrogator claims the agency punished him by “failing to reimburse him for legal fees he incurred as a result of the investigations.” The documents notably reveal that, “those who were not involved in conduct relevant to the [Senate] report have been reimbursed. However, those who were involved in conduct relevant to the report, including [the interrogator who filed the whistleblower complaint] will have to wait until the [Senate] report is reviewed to ensure they are not implicated in any wrongdoing. [Redacted] reiterated that the [Senate] report’s findings have an impact on their indemnification.”

Synergising Network Analysis Tradecraft: Network Tradecraft Advancement Team

Synergising Network Analysis Tradecraft: Network Tradecraft Advancement Team (NTAT)

The Intercept reported this week both that the NSA considered bugging medical supplies to find Osama bin Laden, and that the NSA and its Five Eye counterparts planned to hack Google and Samsung app stores to infect smart phones. The plan to infiltrate bin Laden’s medical supplies is outlined in a June 2010 NSA presentation entitled, “Medical Pattern of Life: Targeting High Value Individual #1,” and it remains unclear if the plan transitioned from the idea stage to planning. The app store hack is revealed in a presentation on the Network Tradecraft Advancement Team, and was “part of a pilot project codenamed IRRITANT HORN.” Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked both of the documents.

The State Department will begin releasing Hillary Clinton’s emails on June 30, and will update the releases every 30 days. The most recent timeline for releasing the former secretary’s emails was announced after the Department argued – and lost – that it could not make Clinton’s emails public until January 2016.

Excerpts of the diary of senior Soviet official Anatoly S. Chernyaev – published this week by the National Security Archive – covers the year 1975 and shows the Soviet Union was already facing a declining economy, contradictions between its policy of détente and its leadership of the international communist movement, and “senility” in its leadership. This is the tenth set of extracts the Archive has posted from the Chernyaev diary covering critical years from the 1970s through 1991.

This week’s #tbt document pick is chosen with news that a US Army lab in Utah sent live anthrax to facilities in nine other states and a US air base in South Korea in mind. Today’s #tbt pick is a collection of US and Soviet intelligence reports and diplomatic cables the Archive published in 2001 that attempt to determine the cause of the deadliest anthrax epidemic known, which occurred at a Soviet biological weapons facility located in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinburg, Russia) in 1979. At least 68 people died in the incident, which was a focus of intense controversy and heated exchanges between Washington and Moscow during the 1980s.

Happy FOIA-ing!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 564 other followers