In Wake of WikiLeaks, what does FOIA tell us?

In the wake of the cache of classified information WikiLeaks dumped into the public domain, how much does FOIA tell us about what’s happening in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and Iraq?  The thousands of files that WikiLeaks posted appear to show on-the-ground first-hand accounts of the war without broader context, according to news accounts.  In its “Day 2” story, The New York Times today points out the unauthorized disclosure may give ammunition for opponents to push to end U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

We turned to our own FOIA Files database for help.  (Okay, this is, in part, self-promotion.)

The 23 stories we reviewed where a reporter or advocacy group (such as the American Civil Liberties Union) used FOIA to write about the region since 2005 focus on al Qaeda’s possible plans to use anthrax (#39 Al Qaeda Letters Are Said to Show Pre-9/11 Anthrax Plans), how taxpayer dollars go to “shoddy” projects (#421 Report: U.N. spent U.S. funds on shoddy projects) or contractors who make campaign contributions (#372 Windfalls of War), how U.S. treats detainees held and tortured (#70 Few Punished in Abuse Cases), how veterans fare with disability claims (#222, #58)).  FOIA has also helped reporters report on how the Pentagon seeks to control information through a network of military retirees who appear on cable news programs (#363 Pentagon, media clash over control of information).

Feds use FOIA to raise possible discrimination

Transparency advocates sometimes get lost in the wonk swamp, burying listeners with acronyms and jargon only a prisoner of the Potomac could appreciate.   This affliction makes it hard to broaden appreciation for how openness makes a difference.  But open government should have a few new friends at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility if their allegations of discrimination prove true.

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A win for OGIS!

Today The Associated Press story showing that political officials reviewed FOIA requests proves that the Office of Government Information Services can effectively resolve disputes and avoid potential litigation (not that we necessarily doubted OGIS).

(For full disclosure, the AP is a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative.)

AP’s Ted Bridis reports that political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security ordered career staff to give them a heads up when a FOIA request came in for sensitive information.  AP describes it this way:

[DHS] detoured hundreds of requests for federal records to senior political advisers for highly unusual scrutiny, probing for information about the requesters and delaying disclosures deemed too politically sensitive

As of June 1, OGIS reported closing 182 cases since opening their doors in September 2009.  The vast majority appear to be breakdowns in customer service: requests fall through the cracks, a requester needs more information about FOIA or where to submit a request, etc.

This is routine stuff that for the most part the agencies themselves should be taking care of.  It’s frustrating for the requester, and OGIS does a service by helping requesters with these issues, but these are things agencies should be fixing.

But this particular request by the AP appears to be a case where the agency did not want to disclose.  An independent eye (OGIS) on the dispute was necessary to resolve the issue and possibly prevented costly litigation.

This is exactly what the OGIS was created to do.

Groups sue for safety studies for oil spill dispersants

Okay, we said it was over.  We said the EPA disclosed the dispersant ingredients back in June:

What are the chemical components of the dispersants COREXIT 9500 and COREXIT 9527?

The components of COREXIT 9500 and 9527 are:
CAS Registry Number Chemical Name
57-55-6
1,2-Propanediol
111-76-2
Ethanol, 2-butoxy-*
577-11-7
Butanedioic acid, 2-sulfo-, 1,4-bis(2-ethylhexyl) ester, sodium salt (1:1)
1338-43-8
Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate
9005-65-6
Sorbitan, mono-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs.
9005-70-3
Sorbitan, tri-(9Z)-9-octadecenoate, poly(oxy-1,2-ethanediyl) derivs
29911-28-2
2-Propanol, 1-(2-butoxy-1-methylethoxy)-
64742-47-8
Distillates (petroleum), hydrotreated light
*Note: This chemical component (Ethanol, 2-butoxy-) is not included in the composition of COREXIT 9500.
Learn more about CAS Registry Numbers from the American Chemical Society

A few environmental groups are not satisfied with the additional disclosures about the ingredients in the dispersants used in record numbers in the Gulf oil spill.  They want to know what the safety studies say about the chemicals in the dispersants.  They asked for the records from EPA back in May under the Freedom of Information Act, had their request logged and heard nothing.  So they’ve sued.

Maybe they could ask OGIS for help?  OGIS is supposed to mediate disputes.  If mediation doesn’t work, OGIS can issue an advisory opinion setting forth a way to resolve what should be disclosed or withheld.  It may be helpful and avoid costly and lengthy litigation.

Yes, we said it was over.  But it was too good to be true.  It turns out it’s not over until the FOIA lawsuit is filed.

For 4th of July, Celebrate America’s Transparency

This weekend, we are mindful of the historical significance of the Fourth of July as well as some more recent traditions and celebrations, such as the 44th anniversary of FOIA’s establishment on July 4, 1966. With that in mind, we have combed our “FOIA Files” entries to remind our readers and ourselves of the democratic values and ideas we hold dear, and how FOIA helps us uphold them.

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