Best practices for national-security reporting

With the recent surveillance leaks in mind, we want to call attention to a collection of “best practices” for journalists reporting on national-security issues which New York Times reporter Adam Clymer laid out as part of a larger report a couple years after the attacks of 9/11; this is a condensed version of Clymer’s summary (from SGI director Rick Blum’s recent Roll Call op-ed):

  • Carefully consider the consequences of publishing.
  • Take government concerns seriously.
  • Check sources.
  • Tell readers when making agreements with governments regarding what stays in (or is left out of) a story.

Now, 2003 is a decade – and more than a few national-security journalism cycles – in the past – but Clymer’s advice remains relevant and valuable, even if a measure of its success is how unobtrusive it is. Ironically, the best practices may be so transparent that they can’t be seen.

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In a new light: FOIA and a photographer’s records

For Ernest Withers, taking pictures while marching in the Civil Rights Movement helped him document his experience, but a FOIA request from a Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter, inspired by an anonymous tip, revealed that Withers had another role during that turbulent time: federal informant. The reporter and assembled panelists will discuss Withers and FOIA’s role uncovering this hidden history at an event at the National Press Club next Thursday, October 10.

Withers, who had been a WWII veteran and one of Memphis’s first black police recruits before opening his own photography studio, used his access as a freelance photographer to get pictures. But records showed that he had also been relaying information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the 1950s into the 1970s; even after his death, the Bureau was reluctant to acknowledge his role. However, reporter Marc Perrusquia noticed that the Department of Justice had responded to a FOIA request by “carefully redacting references to informants – with one notable exception[:] a single reference to Withers’ informant number.” (For a summary of related coverage, see below.)

The Press Club announced: “The panel has particular resonance today. It comes on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. It arrives on the heels of recent news about the government’s sweeping domestic surveillance operations. The discussion hopes to highlight the challenges public-affairs journalism faces as news organizations’ business models are under stress. The discussion will shed light not only on the government’s past surveillance practices but also on FOIA and the public’s right to know what its government is up to.”

We at SGI also note that Perrusquia’s work is part of our “FOIA Files” (#603), and that the agreement between the Commercial Appeal and the Justice Department, for further future releases, means that we will continue to learn more about what the government has done and is doing.

A sampling of coverage (see also the Commercial Appeal’s summary):

Two cheers for Congress: the end of a b(3)

Buried in the middle of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was a pleasant surprise for us: Section 1078, rescinding a statutory exemption to the Freedom of Information Act (or, as we call it, a “b(3)” – after the section of FOIA permitting them), repealed much of the “Smith-Mundt Act”. And earlier this month, this b(3) officially expired.

The United States created the Voice of America during the Cold War to let news programs reach people whose political leaders restricted the press. Amidst concerns that U.S. propaganda might influence domestic policy debates, Congress banned distribution of that programming within the U.S. That is, until earlier this month.

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Curious about surveillance? FOIA has answers.

Many Americans are curious about electronic surveillance by the federal government. Conveniently, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has already helped provide some answers. Although much of the interest and attention arises from journalism in recent days (here, here, here, and here, and related stories), America has had various agencies conducting various forms of surveillance for various purposes for years. For over a decade, journalists have been using FOIA, among other means, to learn more about the surveillance capacities and activities of the federal government:

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#FOIAsurvey update re: FOIAonline

Our efforts to survey federal agencies (@sgichris, #FOIAsurvey) about FOIAonline are starting to bear fruit. We have put out feelers to most of the forty agencies and departments responsible for over 99% of FOIA requests each year, and we can identify some trends:

  • There is definitely more interest. We had expected as much, since the FOIAonline portal offers distinct benefits for individual agencies and requesters, as well as members of each group in the aggregate, but it’s nice to have this recognized by additional agency FOIA personnel.
  • There are plenty of existing contracts. Which is how things should be; we’re glad agencies have invested in their FOIA-processing systems. We’d just like to see agencies consider FOIAonline as an option when the opportunity arises.
  • There is a lot of voicemail. Given the chronic laments of both FOIA requesters and agency staff, that a lack of resources prevents agencies from responding to FOIA requests and related questions as quickly as they’d like to, this is not a surprise. (We hope the people whose numbers we called were busy helping other callers at the time.)
  • There is some confusion. We did have one agency respond that FOIAonline is for agencies which don’t have an electronic processing system. To which we’d say, (1) We certainly hope any non-electronic agency at least investigates FOIAonline; (2) Even an agency with an electronic processing system may benefit from joining FOIAonline; and (3) We hope that nobody thinks “We’ve already got an electronic system so we shouldn’t even check out FOIAonline.”
  • Talking about these issues will help FOIAonline evolve. The EPA, Department of Commerce, and OGIS/NARA have developed FOIAonline through a thorough process, continuing to refine the system and reach out to stakeholders, and while they have summarized some of their most frequent answers, we think our survey can provide additional information and perspective.

While none of the above items may be a complete surprise, the first round of responses does make us optimistic that agencies are aware of FOIAonline, that they are aware of the benefits it is capable of offering, and that the current scope of agency involvement is a function of its recent development. One agency FOIA staffer explained that while the agency wasn’t ready to commit to FOIAonline yet, it did seem like it was the future.

So, we want to make sure it’s the best, most comprehensive and efficient future we can build.

Can you give 5 minutes for FOIA Online?

For Sunshine Week 2013, SGI member groups are surveying federal agencies to help promote FOIA Online, a system to make, process, and view FOIA requests – and we need your help!

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Freedom (of Information) isn’t free; pay it forward by citing FOIA in reporting

As part of our efforts to support improved administration of the federal Freedom of Information Act, we make stories based in part on FOIA easy to find in our “FOIA Files” database. But we’re only able to collect those stories effectively and efficiently when journalists and editors cite FOIA by name, spelled-out or as an acronym, so that the stories turn up when we conduct searches.

While it’s true that allusions to access to “federal records,” and references to documents being “obtained,” can provide hints about the source of the documents, we can only include stories in our database if the reporter indicates that he or she used FOIA. (Reporters: we also take emails at sgi@sunshineingovernment.org.) And the average reader may not realize the role, and value, of FOIA if journalists don’t highlight it. We realize that filing FOIA requests can be frustrating and feel futile, but when those efforts elicit information, we like to focus attention on those stories as examples of the system working, for journalists, FOIA officers, and the public.

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