Fixing FOIA: Justice proposal yet again shows FOIA needs leadership

A current, completely avoidable squabble arose this week over how the Justice Department should word responses that could reveal the existence of an investigation.  This dispute again shows the FOIA needs more attention and forceful leadership to resolve persistent problems and make the FOIA process work better.

Here’s the current quandary:  How should the Justice Department respond to FOIA requests without tipping off suspects who are targets of secret criminal investigations?  Individuals or private entities trying to confirm whether they are subject to an investigation turn to FOIA as a convenient tool.  They file requests for documents hoping the government’s response will reveal whether an investigation has been opened, closed or didn’t exist in the first place.  To avoid tipping its hand, the government’s response has to be identical regardless of whether records exist or not.  The FOIA statute allows the government to “treat [such] records as not subject to the requirements of” FOIA. That means, don’t review the information to redact sensitive material and disclose the rest; simply ignore the information altogether.

The Justice Department has proposed that, in these circumstances, the government should respond “as if the excluded records did not exist.”  But that goes too far, the Electronic Privacy Information Center charges.

Clearly the government should not say records do not exist when, in fact, they may.  Nor should the government’s response tip off targets of investigations.  But there’s an easy solution to this problem, as the American Civil Liberties Union, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and OpenTheGovernment.org noted in their joint comments.  The government could give an identical response explaining it would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a record. (This isn’t a new idea, of course.  It’s longstanding practice called a “Glomar” response started when the U.S. didn’t want to confirm or deny it had used a massive vessel called the Glomar Explorer specifically designed to take possession of a sunken Soviet submarine.)

The nonprofit groups’ comments trace the debate on how agencies should respond going back decades. While the government’s interest in protecting confidential investigations is serious, and the public’s interest in proper administration of FOIA, the fact this has not been resolved is remarkable.  The approach suggested by the nonprofit groups should allow the government to withhold while giving a truthful, informative and standard response to the requester.

Add this to the longstanding problems that require better leadership to ensure FOIA is implemented in a timely, useful manner.

More images of wrongdoing

The military appears ready to recycle arguments from last year, that photographic evidence of wartime abuses by American soldiers poses a threat to national security, the military, or both.

An Army commander is imposing strict limits on photographs in connection with the deaths of three Afghan civilians earlier this year. Descriptions of the photographs and some of the military’s rationales for secrecy in this case are reminiscent of previous photographs and justifications:

The pictures in question show “three dead Afghans with three different Soldiers posing, holding up the decedent’s head. (Each photo was one Afghan, one Soldier),” according to an e-mail by Benjamin Grimes, senior defense counsel at Base Lewis-McChord. Others [photographs described in a memo by Grimes] showed what appeared to be severed fingers and a bone.

(from Salon.com, 9/30/10)

A top Army official has ordered that images of dead or wounded “casualties or detainees” may not be made public during hearings involving an American soldier accused of murdering three Afghan civilians during a deployment to Afghanistan this year.

But the images would be accessible to defense and prosecution teams and could potentially be used as evidence in the case, the Army official, Col. Barry F. Huggins, said in a memorandum.

The decision reflects concern among the Army’s senior leadership that such evidence could anger Afghan civilians at a time when the United States is trying to win support for a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban.

“I have determined that the risk of potential prejudice to the substantive rights of the accused, as well as negative impact on the reputation of the armed forces, associated with the potential public dissemination of these images outweighs minimal hardship upon the accused as a result of this order,” wrote Colonel Huggins.

(from the New York Times, 9/24/10)

With the Obama Administration’s support, Congress has already let the Secretary of Defense withhold photographs showing how U.S. forces handled (and in some cases abused) detainees. That ban only covered photographs taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009; these photographs were taken in 2010.

Will the Administration be tempted to extend the exemption? There’s only one way to find out: Salon.com has filed a FOIA request for the photos.

The fact that this has come up so quickly after the detainee photo controversy shows these fears will come up repeatedly over information held by government, and the justification for the first photos ban was too broad and vague to ensure the U.S. government is kept accountable for the actions of its soldiers.

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