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Federally-Funded Private Prisons Should be Subject to FOIA: FRINFORMSUM 8/10/2017

August 10, 2017

Federally-Funded Private Prisons Should be Subject to FOIA

The National Security Archive joined a large coalition of open government groups calling for the passage of legislation that would apply FOIA to federally-funded private prisons, closing a routinely abused loophole. The Private Prison Information Act of 2017 (S. 1728) was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and “extends the obligation to respond to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests on the federal contracting agencies using existing FOIA procedures.”

Private prisons that receive government funding provide (ostensibly) the same service as government-run prisons, and 18 percent of federal inmates are housed in such facilities – but the companies claim they are exempt from disclosure laws.

The joint letter spearheaded by OpenTheGovernment and sent to members of Congress notes:

Despite the fact they are holding people in federal custody under federal law, nonfederal entities are not subject to the federal FOIA. Private contractors abuse this loophole by marking field reports for internal use only and shielding from public scrutiny information on security breaches, overcrowding, and unaccountable spending. Moreover, federal agencies that contract out for jail and prison beds often rely on FOIA Exemption 4 – the business trade secrets exemption – to avoid responding in full to FOIA requests pertaining to privately-run facilities. This loophole leads to a lack of information needed to understand the cost of detention in private facilities and allow the public to understand the fiscal and human impact of privatized detention and incarceration.

The proposed legislation comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s decision to reverse the Obama administration’s plan to phase-out federal use of private prisons.

MuckRock’s Private Prison Project is an invaluable resource for people concerned with this critical issue.

Transparency should also extend to the companies that operate interstate prison vans and transportation systems, which have long existed without appropriate oversight. (Visit The Marshall Project’s Prison Transportation project for more.)

Blackwater Founder Wants to Privatize Afghan War

Blackwater founder and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, has been making the rounds in recent weeks to advocate privatizing the war in Afghanistan – an idea reportedly supported by Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, if not the DOD. The change could have, among other ramifications, profound implications for transparency. The Atlantic Council’s Sean McFate warns that the world of contracted armies “is more opaque than the CIA or the DOD. … And the trend is invisible to most Americans.”

Blackwater’s record in Iraq does not provide assurances. Documents obtained through a FOIA request in 2012 shed light on how the Department of State rates, grades, and oversees the work assigned to its contractors. One assessment reported that Blackwater’s poor performance in Iraq caused the Department of State “to lose confidence in their credibility and management ability.”

Nisour Square Resentencings

The push for privatization comes at the same time a U.S. Appeals Court threw out one of the four first-degree murder convictions for Blackwater contractors involved in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, which left 14 people dead and 17 wounded. The court ordered resentencings for the other three convictions, finding that the 30-year terms constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In 2015 The New York Times obtained emails showing the FBI agent that led the investigation into four of the seven Blackwater contractors “became convinced that political appointees in the Justice Department were intentionally undermining the case.” The records showed that senior DOJ officials initially balked at bringing two machine-gun charges against the contractors, which are primarily levied against gang members and “carried mandatory 30-year prison sentences”; prosecutors ultimately only brought one machine-gun charge.

Pilot Program at Defense Department for Access to Classified Docs on Secure Tablets

Secure 8-inch screen tablets are being issued to senior officials at the Defense Department for accessing classified documents. The Defense Information Systems Agency initiated the program, which is part of the DOD Mobility Classified Capability – Secret program, this May. Reports indicate that the tablets “include features like the United Video Dissemination System that allows full-motion video from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sources.”

1953 Iran Coup: New US Documents Withheld from FRUS Confirm British Approached US in Late 1952 About Ousting Mosaddeq

State Department memorandum of conversation dated December 3, 1952, describes a meeting between U.S. and British officials on the subject of: “British Proposal to Organize a Coup d’etat in Iran.”

The British Foreign Office approached the Truman administration on more than one occasion in late 1952 to propose a coup to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, according to freshly declassified State Department documents. Posted by the National Security Archive for the first time, two previously Top-Secret memoranda from senior officials at State refer to a series of communications and meetings beginning in October 1952 in which British officials tried to win US approval of Mosaddeq’s ouster.

The posting consists of the most explicit, officially declassified records on the subject released to date by any government.

The two documents were originally considered for inclusion in the latest official US publication on the coup period. In June 2017, the State Department published a 1,007-page compilation of declassified State, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Council documents as part of its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. But while both records are mentioned in the volume by title and date, their content was withheld in its entirety.

The Cuban Missile Crisis Revisited

Longtime National Security Archive fellow Michael Dobbs recently penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post on what President Trump – recently threatening Kim Jong Un with “fire and fury” – should know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In writing his 2008 book One Minute to Midnight, Dobbs concluded “that the real risk of war arose not from the conscious designs of Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev or even Fidel Castro. It stemmed from the possibility that the opposing sides could trigger a nuclear conflict that nobody wanted through miscommunication and freak accidents, which became increasingly likely at higher levels of military alert.”

Dobbs wrote a series of five postings for the Archive highlighting the key primary sources behind One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. The information includes such episodes as a startling Soviet plan to destroy the Guantanamo naval base, the storage and handling of Soviet nuclear weapons on Cuba, and the “Eyeball to Eyeball” confrontation between US and Soviet ships that never happened. The posts can be found below:

What Cyber Treats Does STRATCOM Fear Most?

The classified testimony Brig. Gen. Mary F. O’Brien, USAF, gave the Senate Armed Services Committee this April is the newest FOIA release to the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault project, and maps the threats that most concern U.S. Cyber Command. Many of the priority items are redacted, but usable unredacted portions of the document outline the role of Gen. O’Brien’s specific command, the Intelligence Directorate, in supporting USCYBERCOM operations. The document is one of 12 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, August 9.

Tbt pick – Danger of Nuclear War through Miscalculation – 1983 Edition

This week’s #tbt pick is a 2015 posting from our Able Archer Sourcebook that highlights a 1990 Soviet “War Scare” report – previously classified “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON” and published only after a 12-year fight by the National Security Archive. The report reveals that the 1983 War Scare was real. According to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), the United States “may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger” during the 1983 NATO nuclear release exercise, Able Archer 83.

The PFIAB report also shows that President Reagan learned about, and reacted to, the danger of nuclear war through miscalculation. After reading a June 19, 1984, memorandum from CIA Director William Casey describing “a rather stunning array of indicators” during the War Scare that added “a dimension of genuineness to the Soviet expressions of concern,” the president “expressed surprise” and “described the events as ‘really scary.'”

The cover page of the PFIAB report, previously classified as “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA WNINTEL NOFORN NOCONTRACT ORCON”. It took over 12 years to win this document’s release from the George H.W. Bush Library.

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Happy FOIA-ing!

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