FOIA Federal Advisory Meeting Underscores Questions of ‘Release to One, Release to All’ Policy and FOIA Portal Budget: FRINFORMSUM 1/26/2017
DOJ’s Pustay Refuses to Answer Questions During 2017’s First FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting
The FOIA Federal Advisory Committee held its first meeting of 2017 today. Chaired by the Office of Government Information Services’ new head, Alina Semo, it focused on presentations from its three subcommittees: proactive disclosures, efficiencies and resources, and searches.
Highlights from the meeting included a terrific presentation from Health and Human Services’ Michael Marquis, which begins around the 50’ mark. Marquis helped the HHS FOIA shop reduce its backlog by 10 per cent over the last seven years. When asked what his biggest piece of advice was for other agencies wishing to follow suit, he answered that the best way to improve FOIA processing going forward, both within his agency and across the government, would be an enterprise-wide tracking system for both requests and appeals.
The Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy head, Melanie Pustay, noted during the public Q&A session in response to a series of questions from the Sunlight Foundation’s Alex Howard, that it is “absorbing” the comments it received for its ‘release to one, release to all’ FOIA policy, and that it has received money to launch an online FOIA portal for this fiscal year and is eager to get going on the project. Pustay said that her office hopes to launch the first phase of the FOIA portal in a few weeks with the help of 18f, and that the launch will begin with a three-month discovery period.
The meeting ended, however, on an unnecessarily caustic note. When pressed by Howard about 1) when the Justice Department would meet a missed January 1, 2017, deadline for a final ‘release to one, release to all’ policy, and 2) what budget was being allocated for the FOIA portal, Pustay refused to answer the questions, saying the tone they were asked in was unnecessarily adversarial. Questions of tone aside (video begins at the 2”24’ mark so take a look and judge for yourself), the questions were fair and should be addressed.
Senior Trump Aides have Two Weeks to Preserve Emails from RNC Accounts
Senior Trump administration officials using Republican National Committee email accounts on Inauguration Day have two weeks to copy those emails into official White House records systems. If not, they will be in violation of the Presidential Records Act, which states “the President, Vice President, or covered employee [has] not later than 20 days after the original creation or transmission of” an official record to transfer them to official systems.
Newsweek reported on January 24 that senior Trump staffers, including Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon, maintained active rnchq.org emails accounts – accounts that were deleted on Wednesday, January 25 after the initial Newsweek story ran. The onus is still on these officials to preserve any government-related RNC emails that were sent on or before January 25 onto White House servers.
Sunlight Foundation Making a List of Agencies Ordered to Scale Back Public Communication
The Sunlight Foundation is curating a list of federal agencies that have been ordered by the Trump administration to either limit or stop their communication with the public. The list includes the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Health, and the departments of Interior, Energy, and Transportation.
PIDB Wants to Prioritize Presidential Library Records
Last December the National Security Archive’s FOIA Project Director Nate Jones presented three tangible steps that could be taken to fix the classification and declassification system before the Public Interest Declassification Board. Jones urged the Board to: further improve the efficiency of the National Declassification Center and expand its authority; fully realize the Moynihan Commission’s finding that “the cost of protection, vulnerability, threat, risk, value of the information, and public benefit from release” must be considered when deciding whether or not to classify or declassify any document; and “get into the declassification business.”
Jones was joined by Steve Aftergood, the Brennan Center’s Liza Goitein, and Patrice McDetmott of OpenTheGovernment.org. All of their White Papers can be found on the PIDB’s blog, Transforming Classification.
Unfortunately, the December 2016 Office of the Director of National Intelligence report, “Improving the Intelligence Community’s Declassification Process and the Community’s Support to the National Declassification Center,” did not include any of Jones’ recommendations – or, as Steve Aftergood pointed out, “present any declassification policy proposals.”
There is reason to be hopeful, however, as the Public Interest Declassification Board confirmed its agreement with Jones that the NDC “needs expanded authority and capacity” and stated that it also considers “the prioritization of Presidential records” to be important to its mission to advance government-wide declassification in a January 13, 2017 letter.
The historic summit meetings between Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and two U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, built an intensive learning process on both sides that ended the Cold War, but missed numerous other opportunities to make the world safer, according to the new book, The Last Superpower Summits, by the National Security Archive’s Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton. The book, and key documents from the publication showing Thatcher’s endorsement of Gorbachev, Bush’s anxiety about Gorbachev’s popularity, and missed opportunities on arms control, regional conflicts, and European integration, were featured this week in the Washington History Seminar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Learn more, and read some of the documents, here.
Able Archer Presentation and Book Signing at U.S. National Archives
Nate Jones recently presented his research on the Able Archer 83 nuclear war scare at the U.S. National Archives (if you weren’t able to join us in person, live coverage is available here and will also air on C-SPAN). Jones’s research has successfully pried loose hundreds of pages of declassified government documents from U.S. government agencies, British archives, as well as formerly classified Soviet Politburo and KGB files on the nuclear scare, and he has published them in his new book, “Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise That Almost Triggered Nuclear War.”
Jones will also join the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs at a Nuclear Policy Talks forum to discuss his new book. It will take place on Wednesday, February 17 at 5:30. RSVP here.
An Archive FOIA Request to the CIA (Now at STRATCOM) Turns 18 This April
U.S. Strategic Command recently contacted our Colombia Documentation Project director, Michael Evans, to see if he was still interested in a FOIA request he submitted to the CIA in 1999. Evans learned that his FOIA, through no fault of the STRATCOM officer following up on the FOIA request, had fallen through the referral black hole. Nate Jones has more on this “referral merry-go-round” here.
TBT Pick – Oversight Report from 1976 through 2015
This week’s #TBT pick is chosen with the Trump administration’s recent order to select federal agencies not to communicate with the public “through news releases, official social-media accounts and correspondence” in mind. This week’s #TBT pick is a 2015 posting containing more than 80 oversight and inspector general reports from across the government, dating from 1976 through 2015 on agencies compliance with the FOIA and federal records-keeping practices.
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