Posting More FOIA Releases Online One Way to Improve FOIA Websites: FRINFORMSUM 6/2/2016
The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) and the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) will be hosting a requester roundtable on June 16 on how to improve agency FOIA websites – one of the modernization commitments made as part of the Third United States Open Government National Action Plan. If you have “ever spent far too long searching for something on an agency’s” FOIA page, consider RSVP-ing and providing some feedback about what should be best practice for agency FOIA sites.
Agencies are getting better at posting required information online, but there is still a lot of room for growth. In 2007, a National Security Archive E-FOIA Audit, “File Not Found,” reported that only one in five federal agencies had put online all of the specific requirements mentioned in the E-FOIA amendments, such as guidance on making requests, contact information, and processing regulations. Our follow up E-Audit, 2015’s Most Agencies Falling Short on Mandate for Online Records, shows some improvement – by 2015 the number of agencies that have checked those boxes is much higher — 100 out of 165 — though many (66 in 165) post just the bare minimum, especially when posting FOIA responses. When it comes to posting FOIA responses online, the 2015 audit found that only 40 percent of agencies have followed the law’s instruction for systematic posting of records released through FOIA in their electronic reading rooms – nearly 20 years after Congress passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments.
Another area of frustration for FOIA requesters trying to navigate more than 100 different agency FOIA websites is the lack of standardization. Hunting down agency FOIA regulations provides a snapshot of how different one FOIA page can look from the next – and how frustrating this can be for requesters. DOJ OIP posts its FOIA regulations under a section called “FOIA Resources,” the CIA links to its regulations on its “FAQ” page, and the National Archives clearly shows where to find its FOIA regulations on its FOIA home page. Having required information like FOIA regulations in the same place on every FOIA page would prevent a lot of requester headaches.
A State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation report reveals that last year the CIA agreed to disclose four covert Cold War actions “in forthcoming editions of the U.S. State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.” Steve Aftergood notes, “The FRUS series has been a significant driver of the national security declassification program, particularly since a 1991 statute required that FRUS must present a ‘thorough, accurate, and reliable’ documentary history of U.S. foreign relations — which necessarily includes information that was classified at the time — within 30 years of the events in question.”
The 1991 law Aftergood cites was passed after the State Department published a FRUS volume in 1989 on the 1953 coup in Iran – which received intense criticism for its failure to mention the CIA’s involvement in the coup. Congress passed the 1991 law to help address this glaring omission, requiring a reissue of the Iran volume, as well as those on relations with Guatemala (1954), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1960–1968) that also ignored the CIA’s role in foreign policy. After 25 years, however, the Iran volume remains the only one still withheld; Aftergood reports “The status of the Iran volume is expected to be on the agenda of the upcoming meeting of the State Department Advisory Committee on June 6.” For a longer treatment on the 1953 coup FRUS from the Archive’s Deputy Director and Iran Project Director, Malcolm Byrne, read here.
State Department spokesman John Kirby admitted that segments of a 2013 press briefing video on Iranian nuclear negotiations were intentionally deleted at the request of someone in the department’s public affairs bureau – not by a “glitch” as State initially claimed. In 2013 reporter James Rosen asked former spokesperson Jen Psaki if it was the administration’s policy to lie to preserve the secrecy of the negotiations, to which Psaki responded, “This is a good example of that.” Rosen discovered his 2013 exchange with Psaki had been deleted while preparing a report on White House communications advisor Ben Rhodes, who recently boasted of creating an “’echo chamber’ to market the Iran nuclear deal and undermine criticisms from opponents.”
The FBI wants to exempt Next Generation Identification biometrics – including fingerprints and photos – from the Privacy Act. OpenTheGovernment.org expresses concern over the move, noting that “the FBI is not just seeking exemption from specific requirements of the Privacy Act. It has asked to be exempt from the part of the law that lets citizens enforce any Privacy Act violation (5 U.S.C. § 552a(g)) – even violations of requirements from which the FBI is not exempt. For example, the Privacy Act generally bars the government from creating databases about the political activities of its citizens (5 U.S.C. § 552a(e)(7)). Under the FBI’s proposal, the FBI could violate that rule – and private citizens could never take them to court.”
A federal tribunal in Buenos Aires announced guilty verdicts in the historic prosecution of eighteen Argentine military officers for participating in the coordinated, cross-border system of repression known as “Operation Condor” last week. The National Security Archive hailed the ruling as a “major milestone for the principle of human rights and the pursuit of accountability for human rights violators.”
The Archive’s Carlos Osorio testified at the trial and provided hundreds of declassified documents as evidence, including a declassified FBI document that stated that “a third and most secret phase of ‘Operation Condor’ involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to non-member countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination….” The car-bomb murder of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, in downtown Washington D.C. on September 21, 1976, became the most infamous of Condor assassination plots.
Besides Osorio, Archive Senior Analyst and author of The Pinochet File, Peter Kornbluh, testified at the Condor trial, along with Archive advisory board member John Dinges, author of The Condor Years. Osorio supplied the court with 900 declassified records, many of which provided critical evidence for the proceedings. In final arguments presented to the judges, prosecutors cited the Archive’s documents some 150 times.
This week’s #tbt pick is inspired by a recent Government Accountability Office report that found the Defense Department’s Strategic Automated Command and Control System (DDSACCS) – “which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to US nuclear forces” – runs off 1970s IBM platforms and 8 inch floppy disks. This week’s #tbt pick is a Sandia Lab report released to the Archive thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that disclosed new details on the 1961 Goldsboro nuclear accident. The report concludes that one of the multi-megaton bombs (Weapon 2) was virtually “armed” when it crashed into North Carolina – but the shock also damaged the switch contacts, which had to be intact for the weapon to detonate.
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