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Deadline Looms for Govt to Release Mar-a-Lago Presidential Visitor Records in Response to FOIA Suit: FRINFORMSUM 9/7/2017

September 7, 2017

Mar-a-Lago Diplomacy

Tomorrow Deadline for Mar-a-Lago Records Release

Tomorrow is the deadline for the Department of Homeland Security to release all responsive, non-exempt records of presidential visits to Mar-a-Lago in response to a FOIA lawsuit brought by the National Security Archive, together with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

It remains unclear how robust the visitor records the National Security Archive receives will be, but what is evident is that the FOIA lawsuit is forcing a greater degree of transparency than would have been possible without litigation.

The government has until the end of September to file declarations concerning the White House visitor logs. For comprehensive coverage of our suit, Doyle v. DHS, and the history behind the request, read:

Golf Handicap Records Help Track Lobbyists, Contractors Playing at Trump Golf Courses

A USA Today investigative team combed through social media posts, news stories, and a public website popular with golfers to track their handicaps and check other players’ scores, and found “Dozens of lobbyists, contractors and others who make their living influencing the government pay President Trump’s companies for membership in his private golf clubs, a status that can put them in close contact with the president.” Among them are “top executives of defense contractors, a lobbyist for the South Korean government, a lawyer helping Saudi Arabia fight claims over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the leader of a pesticide trade group that sought successfully to persuade the Trump administration not to ban an insecticide government scientists linked to health risks.” The potential access for the super wealthy (a membership is roughly $100,000 a year) raises a host of ethical questions about whether it is appropriate for the president to be personally enriched by those trying to shape federal policy.

FOIA Sheds Light on LGBT Data Tussle

During the Obama administration the Justice Department, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Environmental Protection Agency, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services all requested that the Census Bureau include questions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the next American Community Survey. As NPR reports, “Many LGBT rights groups say accurate national data about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are critical in making sure their needs are met.”

The Justice Department, however, rescinded its request under the Trump administration “because such a request requires thorough analysis and careful consideration,” and in March the bureau concluded there was “no federal data need” to collect the information. Former Census Bureau director John Thompson told NPR that had that not happened, the bureau might have started asking sexual orientation and gender identity questions.

NPR received a number of documents on the fight over LGBT questions through the FOIA, including a November 4, 2016, Justice Department letter citing the “legal authority supporting the necessity” for collecting the data, and a June 30, 2016, letter from HUD arguing that “Valid, reliable, and nationally representative data on sexual orientation and gender identity are essential to HUD fulfilling its mission” – particularly enforcement of the Equal Access to Housing rule and the Fair Housing Act.

18F Publishes Recommendations for National FOIA Portal

18F, the General Services Administration’s digital wizards, recently published their recommendations on the government-wide FOIA online request portal mandated by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. Compiled after extensive research and dozens of interviews (full disclosure: I was interviewed by 18F during this process), the tech team – solicited by the Justice Department, which received $1.3 million to build the website – found “that while a request platform alone cannot address the most significant challenges with FOIA, a single collection point for requests represents a unique opportunity to make significant improvements to the FOIA requesting system overall.”

The Sunlight Foundation’s Alex Howard summarizes 18F’s work-to-date and potential as follows:

Many of the problems with FOIA cannot be solved with better software. The public still waiting to hear anything from the Department of Justice regarding the “release-to-one, release-to-all policy” that it took public comment on last year, and the antagonism towards transparency by the Trump administration has been well documented.

That said, this is still good news in a historic moment in DC when open government is under threat. We applaud the General Services Administration for their work to date and look forward to seeing the beta go live, but this project is far from over. What happens next will depend in part on funding and political will.

The National Security Archive echoes these sentiments.

Soviet Navy Declassified

The CIA has declassified and published some 82 documents, totaling 2,000 pages, on the Soviet Navy during the Cold War. The release coincides with a joint event hosted with the National Museum of the U.S. Navy and the Naval Historical Foundation. The CIA press release notes, “The documents range from translations of clandestinely-obtained articles from the Soviet military journal, Military Thought, to high-level National Intelligence Estimates.”

The collection is a third in a series of CIA releases on Warsaw Pact forces. The earlier releases are:

How to Counter Botnets?

An unclassified Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) presentation dated July 31, 2017, indicates that DARPA is pursuing methods for countering botnets-based operations. Specifics from the presentation, Harnessing Autonomy for Countering Cyberadversary Systems (HACCS), include the program’s structure and schedule, classification and clearance requirements, and meeting and reporting requirements.

The document is one of 12 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, September 6.

TBT Pick – Stopping Korea from Going Nuclear, Parts 1 and 2

This week’s #TBT pick is a pair of postings on South Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The first posting documents how the Ford administration accumulated evidence – including a secret report to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger relaying that President Park Chung-hee reportedly instructed South Korean scientists to build nuclear bombs by 1977 – that raised worries about proliferation and regional instability. The second charts how the Ford administration had to use a combination of approaches to keep South Korea’s Park dictatorship from going forward with a suspected nuclear weapons program in the mid-1970s.

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Happy FOIA-ing!

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