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Dark Clouds over Sunshine Week as Network Fires Mexico’s Leading Investigative Team

March 16, 2015
Carmen Aristegui was fired yesterday by Noticias MVS after five years hosting the network’s Primera Emisión program.

Carmen Aristegui was fired yesterday by Noticias MVS after five years hosting the network’s Primera Emisión program.

National Security Archive deeply troubled over dismissal of journalists in Mexico

This post reflects the views and opinions of Michael Evans, Jesse Franzblau and Kate Doyle of the Archive’s Mexico Project staff.

The National Security Archive is deeply troubled over the decision by Mexican news network Noticias MVS to dismantle the country’s top investigative team, led by Carmen Aristegui, host of the network’s Primera Emisión program. The loss of these journalists and Aristegui’s entire program is a severe blow to independent journalism and free speech in Mexico. Our regret is all the more profound since the actions taken by MVS silence a group of journalists with whom we have had a longstanding and fruitful collaborative relationship.

MVS terminated their relationship with the award-winning journalist and host of one of Mexico’s most popular news programs yesterday after rejecting Aristegui’s demand that the network reinstate the top two members of her team. Last week, MVS fired the head of Aristegui’s investigative unit, Daniel Lizárraga, and another member of the team, reporter Irving Huerta, after Aristegui told her listeners that she and her staff had joined with other media and advocacy groups in forming MexicoLeaks, a digital platform meant to facilitate leaks of classified information to investigative journalists. Other media groups involved with MexicoLeaks include Animal Político, emeequis, Másde131, Periodistas de a Pie, Poder, Proceso, and the Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales.

Aristegui issued a statement on the air Friday, indicating that she had not been notified of plans to dismiss the journalists and characterizing the firings as an attack on press freedom. She called for the unconditional reinstatement of her colleagues, saying the fired reporters are “essential” to the investigative work of her program. The same day, the network issued a new, more restrictive set of guidelines for the popular radio host, who also anchors an evening program on CNN México. The new rules, which would have taken effect today, essentially reversed the broad editorial discretion granted to Aristegui in her 2009 contract, giving the network final say over program content.

Aristegui, Lizárraga and Huerta are three of the most essential advocates for greater transparency in Mexico and have used the country’s access law to produce a number of game-changing investigative stories. It was their team that exposed conflict-of-interest in a deal between President Enrique Peña Nieto and a real estate developer who built an opulent mansion for the president and later won lucrative government contracts. Their reporting has revealed key details on recent human rights cases and a prostitution ring being run by a top member of the president’s political party in Mexico City. More recently the team had been using the access law to probe the murder and attempted cover-up by the Army of 22 suspected gang members in Tlatlaya.

Last year, Michael Evans and Jesse Franzblau of the Archive were named along with Lizárraga, Huerta, Aristegui, and other members of their team as part of the official selection for the 2014 Gabriel García Márquez award. The nomination was the result of a joint investigation with MVS Noticias revealing newly-declassified evidence of a secret U.S. espionage facility in Mexico City. In December, their team provided comprehensive coverage of a document we obtained confirming police participation in the 2011 migrant massacres in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. In April 2014, we worked with them on a story looking at declassified records from the first, failed, attempt by Mexican forces to capture an infamous drug kingpin.

The Archive’s history of working with Lizárraga dates back to his days as a journalist at the newsweekly Proceso. In 2006, the Archive hosted him in Washington, DC, at a forum for open government advocates to share experiences using transparency laws in investigative journalism. Daniel has been one of the leading journalists using Mexico’s freedom of information law since it was passed in 2003, and his work has been an inspiration to journalists using access laws to investigate government corruption.

It is our sincere hope that our friends Carmen, Daniel and Irving will find a new venue to continue their essential work. The Archive offers its full support to these courageous journalists and looks forward to future projects with the entire investigative team.


Michael Evans, Jesse Franzblau and Kate Doyle


Posting FOIA Releases Online Saves Agencies Time and Money

March 13, 2015
Posting records electronically saves agencies time and money.

Posting records electronically saves agencies time and money.

This article was originally posted on the official Sunshine Week website, sponsored by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bloomberg, The Gridiron Club and Foundation
American Society of News Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.  Feel free to edit and republish.

The silver lining of the Hillary Clinton email debacle is that the Department of State is well positioned to post all of Clinton’s emails online for the public to view after it reviews them for release. Unfortunately, according to a government-wide FOIA audit conducted by the National Security Archive to celebrate Sunshine Week, the majority of federal agencies are not so well situated.

Nearly twenty years after Congress passed the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments (E-FOIA) – only 40 percent of agencies follow the law’s instruction for systematic posting of records released through FOIA in their electronic reading rooms. The remainders seem willing to keep the public ignorant of their records, because in the digital age if it’s not online, it might as well not exist.

Some “E-Stars,” including the State Department, FBI, and agencies participating in the government’s opt-in FOIA portal FOIAonline, exist within the federal government and serve as examples to lagging agencies that technology can be harnessed to create state-of-the art FOIA platforms that save agencies time and money and help decrease FOIA backlogs. There are, however, many “E-Delinquents” whose abysmal web performance recalls the teletype era and continues to hinder their overall FOIA performance.

Since 1966, the FOIA has required agencies to make “available for public inspection and copying” certain defined categories of records. For the first thirty years, agencies satisfied this portion of the FOIA with “conventional reading rooms,” physical locations where members of the public could review paper or microform copies of the records.

In 1996 Congress sought to revolutionize the public’s access to information and the Freedom of Information Act process by directing agencies to use the Internet to make more information – including documents released by FOIA – available.

Congress believed then, and openness advocates know now, that this kind of proactive disclosure is the only tenable solution to FOIA backlogs and delays, is a prudent, cost-saving practice, and attracts public attention.

Many agencies' electronic reading rooms need an overhaul.

Many agencies’ electronic reading rooms need an overhaul.

Currently, many “E-Delinquent” FOIA offices waste resources by refusing to embrace the open government principle of posting FOIA releases online. These analog agencies spend valuable time searching for, reviewing, redacting, and releasing documents to an individual in response to a FOIA request, only to print out a paper version of the document, which may never be published online for a wider audience.

Proactive declassification and posting of records, such as those released about the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, Deep Water Horizon oil spill completed FOIA requests, and (hopefully soon) Hillary Clinton’s emails, save those agencies huge amounts of processing time for FOIA requests while enriching the public debate since people’s curiosity can now be  satisfied by just looking online.

In the sequester era, with finite and ever-more-limited government resources, any new request from the public competes for time and effort with every previous request.  The only way out of this resource trap is for agencies to put online as many records as possible, those previously released, those likely to be asked for in the future, and those of significant public interest.  This way, the FOIA process could ultimately be limited just to those records where a genuine dispute exists about whether they should be public.

Despite static resources, and frequently increasing FOIA backlogs, FOIA “E-Stars” have proven that by embracing the Act’s principles of proactive disclosure and twenty-first century technology, even agency FOIA programs marred by over-secrecy (FBI) and exceedingly long response times (State) can succeed at vastly expanding the amount of information the public has access to, and guarantee that FOIA resources are not wasted processing documents that become lost, gathering dust in desk drawers.

In the 21st century, if it’s not on a screen it’s not in the public domain. This will be the case with Hillary Clinton’s emails, as well as other government records.


Department of State Electronic Email Preservation Rate Hovers under 0.0061%, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 3/11/2015

March 11, 2015

By Lauren Harper and Nate Jones


Today’s Department of State Office of Inspector General report has some scary numbers on the number of emails the Department actually preserves.

Hillary Clinton takes questions at a press conference. Photo credit: Richard Drew, AP.

Hillary Clinton takes questions at a press conference. Photo credit: Richard Drew, AP.

The most important claim made by Hillary Clinton about her use of a private email address and storing the emails on a private server while Secretary of State was that because she sent her official emails to “government officials on their State or other .gov accounts [] that the emails were immediately captured and preserved,” and that therefore she had complied with the Federal Records Act, Federal Regulations (36 CFR 1263.22), and US National Archives guidance (NARA Bulletin 2011-03) on preserving email.

A Department of State Office of Inspector General report –released today with little fanfare– casts much doubt that the former secretary’s emails were actually “captured and preserved” as she claimed.

The report found that State Department “employees have not received adequate training or guidance on their responsibilities for using those systems to preserve ‘record emails.’ In 2011, employees created 61,156 record emails out of more than a billion emails sent.” In other words, roughly .006% of DOS emails were captured electronically. And in 2013 a paltry 7 emails were preserved from the Office of the Secretary, compared to the 4,922 preserved by the Lagos Consulate in Nigeria.  The odds that the account holders of .gov email addresses that the former secretary relied upon to save her emails actually did so are incredibly slim.

Even though the report notes that its assessments “do not apply to the system used by the Department’s high-level principals, the Secretary, the Deputy Secretaries, the Under Secretaries, and their immediate staffs, which maintain separate systems,” the State Department has not provided any estimation of the number of Clinton’s emails that were preserved by recipients through the Department’s –ahem– “print and file” system for preserving digital documents, or any other system.

As the Archive reported earlier, though Clinton was likely in breach of record keeping laws and best practices, a sad silver lining may be that her personal email system preserved emails that the State Department system could not.

Other purportedly personal emails (some 32,000 emails as deemed by Clinton’s team – not FOIA processors) were not preserved.  It remains to be seen whether or not it is possible to retrieve the deleted emails from Clinton’s hard drive.  As Douglas Cox has argued, the “solution should have been an independent National Archives review of all of Clinton’s emails to determine which were properly considered federal records” as occurred with the federal records that former secretary of state Kissinger incorrectly contended were his personal files.

Former secretary Clinton also avoided directly addressing whether or not her personal email usage impeded the State Department from accurately responding to FOIA requests.  In a fact sheet provided by her office, the answer to the question about FOIA (question 9) addressed completely different topics: hacked email and emails requested by Congress.  Dan Metcalfe, the founding director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) – responsible for ensuring federal compliance with the FOIA – was less circumspect.  He called Clinton’s use of private email a “blatant circumvention of the FOIA [in addition to] the Federal Records Act by people on both sides of it who unquestionably knew better.”

"WikiLeaks Updates" withheld under b(5).

“WikiLeaks Updates” withheld under b(5).

Moving forward, the biggest question about Clinton’s remaining emails, now possessed by the Department of State –in *shudder* paper, not digital format– is how redacted they will be when they are made public.

The State Department recently released the first email associated with Mrs. Clinton’s private email address in connection to a FOIA lawsuit brought by journalist Alexa O’Brien, who in turn shared the email with VICE news. The December 24, 2010, email found in former State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley’s records, is entitled “WikiLeaks Update,” and is nearly entirely redacted pursuant to the b(5) “withhold it because you want to” exemption.

Mrs. Clinton has said she wants “the public to see” her email and has asked the State Department to review them for release, but the only way the public will see any meaningful documentation is if State Department reviewers embrace a presumption of openness and refuse to use this discretionary exemption to redact any “inter-agency communications” –that is, to blank out entire documents.

UPDATE: On Marcy 13, 2015 Department of State Spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed that emails at the State Department, including emails that Clinton claimed were “captured in real time” by other email accounts, were in fact not automatically or routinely archived.


FRINFORMSUM (FReedom of INFORMation SUMmary) continues:

“Emailgate” has called attention to NARA’s reluctance to ask the Department of Justice to prosecute government officials who unlawfully destroy official records. One instance in which NARA did open an inquiry involved Jose Rodriguez, the former CIA official in charge of the agency’s defunct torture program that ordered the destruction of key videos documenting it in 2005, claiming that “the heat from destroying [the torture videos] is nothing compared to what it would be if the tapes ever got into the public domain.” While NARA did initiate an inquiry, the National Security Archive and Docexblog –which has followed the story better than anyone— still have not seen any indication of the inquiry’s completion or findings. The Department of Justice decided not to file criminal charges against Rodriguez in 2010.

U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler recently ruled that a FOIA requester could not use the FOIA to “gain access to the private email of a government official.” The case concerns the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s request for Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren’s emails. Kessler indicated she made the ruling in part “because Holdren issued a memo to his agency in 2010 that required that work-related emails exchanged on private accounts be ‘promptly copied’ to the agency.”

CIA director John Brennan announced the agency will undergo an extensive restructuring intended to eliminate “seams” in coverage. “The overhaul is designed to foster deeper collaboration and an intensified focus on a range of security issues and threats, replacing long-standing divisions that cover the Middle East, Africa and other regions with hybrid ‘mission centers’ modeled on the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.”

The U.S. Marshals Service uses small Cessnas like this one to broadcast fake cell phone tower signals. Photo credit: Reuters photo.

The U.S. Marshals Service uses small Cessnas like this one to broadcast fake cell phone tower signals. Photo credit: Reuters photo.

The CIA began helping the U.S. Marshals, a Department of Justice (DOJ) component, build the technology the Marshals use for their “stingrays” – small planes “mounted with controversial cell-phone tracking systems” – over a decade ago. The Wall Street Journal revealed last year that the Marshals were collecting “large amounts of data from Americans’ cell phones through devices mounted on airplanes in an effort to locate fugitives” as part of a program that is run out of five unidentified large metropolitan areas. Both the CIA and the Justice Department have denied that the CIA, which is largely barred from conducting domestic operations, violated any rules helping the Marshals build its surveillance capabilities.

The Intercept recently published an in-depth analysis, based on documents provided by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, of the CIA’s multi-year campaign to degrade Apple’s encryption for its iPhones and iPads. The Intercept reported hacking strategies were discussed at a secret annual CIA event called the Trusted Computing Base Jamboree, and focused on “targeting essential security keys used to encrypt data stored on Apple’s devices” used internationally by hundreds of millions of Apple customers. The revelations come shortly after Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity firm, reported details of a sophisticated hacking group with intricate ties to the NSA that found ways to permanently embed surveillance tools that are so sophisticated they infect a computer’s “firmware” (the embedded software that prepares a computer’s hardware before the operating system starts).

Wikipedia and eight other groups filed a lawsuit this week (Wikimedia Foundation, et al, v. National Security Agency, et al, U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, No. 15-662) challenging the NSA’s dragnet surveillance practices. The suit argues that the NSA’s practices violate both the First and Fourth Amendments, and “‘reduces the likelihood’ that journalists, foreign government officials, victims of human rights abuses and other individuals will share sensitive information.”

A recent Defense One editorial argued that whistleblower protection rules serve “more as a trap for would-be whistleblowers rather than a shield against retaliation.” The editorial was bolstered by a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that examined “five dozen FBI whistleblower claims, and found only three that resulted in some form of corrective action.” The GAO found that DOJ regulations only protect “disclosures made to a handful of high-ranking officials and not those made to direct supervisors in the employees’ chain-of-command,” and as a result the DOJ ignores “a significant portion” of whistleblower claims.

A leak investigation involving former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, has been stalled by concerns it could force confirmation of joint U.S.-Israeli efforts to sabotage Iranian nuclear efforts. Cartwright is accused of leaking information regarding “a highly classified operation to hobble Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability through cyber-sabotage” to a  New York Times reporter. The information, including the project’s code name – Olympic Games – was included in several of Times’ reporter David E. Sanger’s June 2012 publications, and corroborated earlier reports that the Stuxnet virus, which attacked Iranian nuclear centrifuges, was the result of U.S.-Israeli collaboration.

Petraeus and Broadwell in 2011. Photo: International Security Assistance Force.

Petraeus and Broadwell in 2011. Photo: International Security Assistance Force.

The news of the stalled investigation comes shortly after the announcement that former CIA director and retired four star general David Petraeus reached a plea deal with the DOJ after admitting to sharing classified information with Paula Broadwell and lying to the FBI about it. Under the plea deal Petraeus will plead guilty to one misdemeanor and serve no jail time, underscoring the double-standard of high ranking officials receiving little-to-no punishment for security breaches, while lower ranking officers are regularly threatened with jail time and heavy fines.

Happy FOIA-ing!

2015 Sunshine Week Round Up

March 4, 2015

swlogo-100x151Sunshine Week, the national celebration of open government and freedom of information, kicks into full gear Monday, March 16th. Every year, the news media, nonprofits, libraries, schools, and the government debate the best ways to strengthen the public’s right to know and how to achieve a more democratic, transparent government.  This Sunshine Week Nate Jones, the Director of the FOIA Program at The National Security Archive, will present a free, open to the public, 2-hour workshop for journalists, historians, and researchers on how to file effective federal FOIA requests.  Other suggested activities taking place in the Washington, D.C. area in the coming weeks include:

Friday, March 13, 2015

  • FOI Day

The Newseum Institute,, American Library Association

The Newseum Institute, and the American Library Association, in partnership with the Sunshine in Government Initiative, American Society of News Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, will host the annual FOI Day at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The morning event will include a look at 10 years of Sunshine Week and the importance of government transparency. This year’s program features:

  • A discussion of “Open Government: Successes, Challenges, Prospects” presented by
  • A discussion of the first ten years of the “Sunshine Week” national open records initiative, presented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors, including a preview of a major reporting package from The Associated Press, McClatchy and Gannett/USA Today on a decade of open government activity.
  • Remarks by Miriam Nisbet, former director of Office of Government Information Services, National Archives.
  • Announcement of this year’s recipient of the James Madison Award, presented annually by the American Library Assocation to individuals or groups that have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know.
  • Additional speakers may be announced later.

Attendees should use the C Street entrance to the Newseum, which will open at 7:45 a.m. for this program only. Admission to the FOI Day program does not include admission to the NewseumFollow #FOIDay15 on Twitter.

2015 National Freedom of Information Day Conference

2015 National Freedom of Information Day Conference


Monday, March 16, 2015

Department of Justice Sunshine Week 2015 Celebration

U.S. Department of Justice

The theme of this year’s Department of Justice Sunshine Week event is a celebration of government FOIA professionals. The DOJ is accepting nominations in a variety of categories, and the winners will be recognized for their FOIA service with awards. The event in Washington will be held from 10 a.m. to noon and is open to agency personnel and the public. More information, registration and award nomination instructions are available on the DOJ website.

 FOIA Faster

National Press Club

To mark Sunshine Week, the National Press Club and its Press Freedom Committee will host a workshop for journalists to teach them techniques to help get better results from Freedom of Information Act requests. FOIA Resource Center founder Lisette Garcia will lead the class that costs $5 for NPC members and $10 for non-members. Details and registration information are on the National Press Club website.

  • Crafting your FOIA request: How to get the most useful information in the shortest time

Administration for Children & Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
The HHS’ Administration for Children & Families will host a Sunshine Week workshop on crafting effective Freedom of Information Act requests. More information about the event, slated for 12-1:30 p.m., will be posted on the ACF website.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Era of Transparency: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Privacy Act, and Open Government

The Bureau of the Census (U.S. Census Bureau)

The U.S. Census Bureau is hosting a Sunshine Week discussion on the importance of open government. Topics are slated to include proactive disclosures, the Privacy Act and data accessibility. The event will take place from 9 a.m. to noon in Suitland, Md. For more information, see the event notice online.

 Thursday, March 19, 2015

  • Thursday, March 19, 4pm at Gelman Library, Room 702.

    Thursday, March 19, 4pm
    at Gelman Library, Room 702.

    Let the Sun Shine: FOIA requests for journalists and researchers

National Security Archive and the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University, Washington

Nate Jones, director of the National Security Archive’s FOIA Project, will give a 2-hour workshop on how to file effective federal Freedom of Information Act requests. The event, which begins at 4 p.m. at GWU’s Gelman Library is free and open to the public. More information can be found on the library’s website.

 Sunshine Week Happy Hour and FOILIES Awards

Sunlight Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, MuckRock

The Sunlight Foundation is teaming up with EFF and MuckRock to expand its annual Sunshine Week Happy Hour in D.C. to include a celebration of the FOILIES Awards, presented for the most “extraordinary and egregious” FOIA request responses, as nominated by the public. The event will be held from 5-7 p.m. at Lost & Found in Washington. More details and nomination information can be found on the Sunlight Foundation website.

A full list of nationwide Sunshine Week activities can be found here, and you can follow Sunshine Week on Twitter @SunshineWeek.

Responding to Attacks on FOIA Reform and H.R. 653

February 27, 2015
Ms. Nesbit testifying on the importance of FOIA reform.

Ms. Nesbit testifying on the importance of FOIA reform.

This morning the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations had its first hearing of the session(!) on “Ensuring Government Transparency Through FOIA Reform.” Witnesses included Miriam Nisbet, former director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), Rick Blum, Director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, and Fred Sadler, a former FOIA officer for the Food and Drug Administration. Earlier this month, Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones outlined why the simultaneous introduction of popular, bipartisan Freedom of Information Act bills in both the House (H.R. 653) and the Senate (S 337) is a good sign for those who want the release of more government documents, more quickly, to more people.  Many of his arguments were reiterated by Mr. Blum and Ms. Nisbet throughout the hearing. Mr. Sadler, on the other hand, testified that, “Clearly, the statute is functioning well, in the main” and argued against most of the House bill’s FOIA reforms.1  Below are the National Security Archive’s responses to several of his arguments.

Early in his testimony while discussing possible improvements to the referral process, Mr. Sadler argued that “complaints need to be tempered,” as referrals are a critical part of the FOIA process.  

That referrals are a reality in the FOIA process is not up for debate, nor is the fact that referrals are a major factor contributing to FOIA delays. The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) argues in its 2014 FOIA Implementation Report that “explicit and specific rules about what can be ‘equity’ information, strictures as to how long a third party agency can hang onto its interests, and guidelines as to whether particular agency interests can impede the general move to declassification” would help fix the referral issue, thereby further improving FOIA wait times and backlogs.  The National Security Archive has experienced decades-long FOIA delays due to referrals.  One 1983 document was referred to 14 different agencies for a crack at censorship.

Mr. Sadler also expressed concern that codifying a “foreseeable harm” test (the current policy advocated by both the President and the Attorney General) would lead to increased FOIA litigation.

The proposed legislation strengthens the FOIA Ombuds, OGIS, and fixes FOIA loopholes, which will both help to cut down on the fee disputes, lack of communication, and improper withholdings  that often lead to litigation.  At any rate, it was a bit strange to hear a recently retired FOIA director claim that the Presidential instructions his office was supposed to have been following should not be codified.

Mr.  Sadler’s testimony also raised the specter of 508 compliance, arguing that making documents 508 compliant is too costly, too burdensome, and not presently feasible.

According to many inside the government, one of the primary challenges to improving proactive disclosures is ensuring that the posted documents are “508 compliant.” Section 508 has required agencies to ensure that persons with disabilities have comparable access to data as persons without disabilities and that federal employees with disabilities can access records with the same ease as their non-disabled counterparts since 1998.  Despite his protestations, Sadler essentially admitted this at 1:16 in the video.  He states that his largest issue is with documents “submitted” to the agency in non-508-compliant format.  This is a very small subset of documents, and no reason to torpedo the idea of proactively posting FOIA releases.

Despite arguments that making documents 508 compliant is too burdensome, all documents posted to FOIAonline (by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Administration, the National Archives and Records Administration, the US Navy, and others) are 508 compliant, as are the documents posted by the Department of State. A 2010 Department of Homeland Security guide also shows that making documents 508 compliant is not taxing, and even older paper records that are scanned to be processed through FOIA can be made 508 compliant with just a few clicks in Adobe Acrobat.  Even if its prohibitive to make older documents that were scanned from paper 508 compliant, there should be, at the very least, no such excuse for digital records.

Sadler and others have argued that posting FOIA releases online is not cost effective.  In fact the National Security Archive believes the opposite is true.  It’s not cost effective to spend tens (or hundreds) of person hours to search for, review, and redact FOIA requests only to mail them to the requester and have them slip them into their desk drawer and forget about them.  That, is a waste of resources.  The released documents should be posted online for any interested party to utilize.  This will only become easier as FOIA processing systems evolve to automatically post the documents they track.

The latest Archive audit highlighted just how outdated many agency FOIA regs are.

The latest Archive audit highlighted just how outdated many agency FOIA regs are.

Mr. Sadler stated that requiring all agencies to update their FOIA regulations within 180 days of the bills’ passage is inefficient, and countered that allowing the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) to craft a single, government-wide set of FOIA regulations would be preferable.

Currently, over half of federal agencies have not updated their regulations to comply with the 2007 Open Government FOIA improvements.  By neglecting to update their “FOIA handbooks,” agencies are essentially ignoring Congress’s FOIA reforms.

Additionally, having OIP crafting government-wide regulations would bear watching; OIP proposed FOIA regulations in 2011 that would have — among many other FOIA setbacks — allowed the Department to lie to FOIA requesters, eliminated online-only publications from receiving media fee status, and made it easier to destroy records.

Mr. Sadler also noted that the categories of records that agencies are required to proactively post online are not clear enough, though recent government efforts to post various databases online have been successful.

The E-FOIA Amendments of 1996 explicitly lists several types of records agencies must publish proactively in their electronic reading rooms – including agency FOIA regulations, annual FOIA reports, agency opinions and determinations, policy statements and interpretations, agency FOIA manuals, records “likely to become the subject of subsequent requests” and “frequently requested records,” which OIP defines as records that have been requested three or more times. It is understandably time-consuming for agencies to develop a system that keeps track of how often a record has been released, which is in part why agencies rarely do so and are often in breech of the, now nearly twenty-year-old, law. Proactively posting FOIA releases after their first release, however, would solve this problem and undoubtedly help agencies cut down on their FOIA backlogs. There are several agencies that do this to different degrees; the Environmental Protection Agency and several other agencies post their FOIA releases to FOIAonline, and the Department of State posts documents released in response to FOIA requests quarterly.

Finally, Mr. Sadler cryptically warned the Committee against “making determinations based” on media reports on the increase of “certain exemptions” – likely referring to FOIA’s exemption b(5)

Perhaps Mr. Sadler remembers that it was the White House that initially pointed to the falling use of the b(5) exemption as proof that the administration really was working to “figure out where we can disclose information” and cited the b(5) dip as a FOIA success stemming from President Obama’s and Attorney General Holder’s instructions for agencies to operate with “a presumption in favor of disclosure” with respect to FOIA.

Those times have changed.  Widely cited statistics compiled by the Associated Press show b(5) use is at an all time high. It was invoked 81,752 times in 2013 (applied to 12 percent of all of 2013’s processed requests) to deny information. The concern surrounding the increasing use of b(5) – that allows agencies to withhold any “interagency or intra-agency communication,” as well as any agency-claimed “draft,” from the public – does not arise solely from the number of times it is invoked, however, but also from mounting evidence that it is increasingly being used as a catch-all exemption.

The Rise of B(5).  Chart by Lauren Harper, compiled from AP statistics

The Rise of B(5). Chart by Lauren Harper, compiled from AP statistics

While this exemption is often used correctly to preserve candid communications between government employees, its broad wording and ease of applicability has led to extreme (even offensive) overuse, including censoring information on DOJ Nazi hunting (and protecting), a CIA history of the Bay of Pigs invasion, documents on US policy during the Rwandan genocide, and many more.  President Obama’s adviser John Podesta has even called it the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.

The National Security Archive is thrilled the Committee is eager to tackle FOIA reform early on in this legislative session.  This endeavor was helped by the excellent FOIA questions asked by Chairman Mark Meadows (R-Nc) , Ranking Member Gerry Connolly (D-Va), and Representatives Mick Mulvaney (R-Sc), Stephen Lynch (D-Ma), and Thomas Massie (R-Ky).  Additional thanks is due to Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca), Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md) and Mike Quigley (D-Il), who introduced this bill.  We are confident the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act is strong enough to overcome its detractors.

1. Mr. Sadler also added a bit of levity to the hearings when he described how the text of a document about energy bar ingredients that initially included the words “allergy inducing” was altered during an American with Disabilities Act compliance measure to errantly read “orgy inducing.”

After a chuckle, further inspection of this anecdote is bizarre and troubling.  Mr. Sadler himself  testified that the document in question was a Microsoft Word document which is already digitally readable (ADA and 508 compliant).  If that was the case, it’s strange and inefficient that the FDA chose for some reason to re-OCR a file already 508 compliant and make it incorrect.

At any rate, this tale of an “orgy inducing” energy bar does little to negate the need for robust proactive posting of documents released under FOIA.

Backlash Develops Over Release of Body Cam Footage

February 26, 2015

A police officer wears a camera affixed to his sunglasses. Photo credit: Johnathan Alcorn for the New York Times.

By Toby McIntosh and Lauren Harper

This article has been crossposted from

Bills to restrict or prevent the public disclosure of videos taken by police officers wearing cameras are sparking debate in state legislatures around the United States.

Anti-disclosure bills have been offered in half a dozen states, usually by legislators with law enforcement backgrounds.

“Video recordings should not be subject to open records requests,” testified Richard W. Van Houten, Jr., President of the Fort Worth Police Officers Alliance, at a listening session held Jan. 31 by President Obama’s task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing in, too, advocating that only the most significant videos be saved for possible release.

Freedom of information advocates dislike this proposal, and counter that existing public records laws already protect against disclosures that would breach personal privacy or interfere with law enforcement.

If the footage isn’t available, “body cam” supporters say, the promise of having silent watchdogs over police-citizen interactions will go unfulfilled.

After the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama asked Congress to buy 50,000 police body cameras – for $75 million – to promote accountability in police forces nationwide.

Some body camera pilot programs have shown a decrease in both complaints against police officers and police use of force (88 percent and 60 percent respectively in Rialto, Calif.) Many agree that in theory body cameras are a good idea. In practice, they pose real-world challenges.

Disclosure a Hot Topic

How much body cam footage would be disclosed, and what would be kept confidential, is surfacing as a contentious and complicated issue.

It’s largely settled that state FOI laws, which vary in their details, apply to all public records, including body cam videos, subject to exemptions.

The laws include exemptions to protect personal privacy and preserve the integrity of investigations and prosecutions.

Some guidance as to how they would apply to body cam footage can be derived from the treatment of 911 audio recordings and dashboard camera footage. But the application of state laws to body cam footage is undeveloped and unlitigated.

Although a vehement backlash against disclosure has emerged, it is premature to predict whether restrictive bills will pass,, was told by activists on both sides.

Rule for Body Cams Use Will Affect Disclosure

Many policy choices to be made about what will be filmed, which in turn will affect what might be disclosed.

“This a very tough issue and is one that will become more of an issue,” said Lindsey Miller, an author of a comprehensive report on body camera policies by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).

The report observes, “A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record….” PERF is a research and policy organization in Washington whose members are the heads of police departments across the country. The September 2014 report was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

In hundreds of local jurisdictions, decisions are being made about the use of body cams, often with questions of privacy in mind.

Among the issues are:

  • whether cameras should be turned off before an officer enters a private residence without a warrant,
  • whether video-taping should be continuous,
  • when should cameras be turned off,
  • whether subjects need to be informed they are being taped,
  • how to prevent manipulation of the footage and
  • how long to retain the videos.

Once these decisions are made and cameras are rolling the policies on disclosing the videos are governed by state freedom of information laws.

“Most of these laws were written long before law enforcement agencies began deploying body-worn cameras, so the laws do not necessarily account for all of the considerations that must be made when police departments undertake a body-worn camera program,” according to the PERF report.

In some states, notably New York and North Carolina, provisions designed to protect police officers are likely to prevent the release of body cam videos.

In Los Angeles, the police chief says he won’t release video footage, setting up a likely confrontation with disclosure advocates.

Read more…


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