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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SGI Statement on the Justice Department obtaining AP phone records

The action of the U.S. Department of Justice is an affront to the relationship between the government and news media that our nation’s founders established over two centuries ago.  Journalists experienced in reporting on global affairs and national security respect the government’s need to keep information confidential to protect national security and carefully consider the government’s concerns when reporting on such matters.

Last year Congress rejected a package of changes from the Senate Intelligence Committee that would have redefined the relationship between the government and press on reporting related to global affairs and national security. Until the Justice Department’s actions are better explained, they appear to be another reaction that unnecessarily threatens the balance between the government’s right to keep secrets to protect national security and the public’s right to be informed about global affairs. While delicate and sometimes tense, this balance has never been disrupted to the point that our national security is breached; quite the contrary, in fact:  thorough reporting on national security issues almost always serves the public ‘s and government’s interests and makes our nation safer.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative is a coalition of media associations promoting greater transparency in the federal government. Members include the American Society of News Editors, The Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsmedia, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Online News Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists.

House panel’s pointed letter to Justice sends impatient message on #FOIA

In a renewed and welcome spirit of bipartisanship, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) asking pointed questions about OIP’s actions to encourage agencies to comply with FOIA by reducing backlogs, reigning in the use of statutory exemptions and updating FOIA regulations.  We’re especially appreciative that Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) mentioned a database of the statutory exemptions to FOIA that we compiled and ProPublica published a while ago.

This is a great time for FOIA because so much has evolved since Congress enacted the 2007 FOIA amendments (pdf) five years ago. FOIA Online is now a realistic option for agencies to go digital with their FOIA operations while realizing huge savings for the federal government, an important aspect to getting any legislation through Congress.

Congress could mandate that agencies move to FOIA Online as their current contracts for FOIA processing expire, invest the savings from the move to a shared service to improving FOIA.  Improvements could include developing further the FOIA Online system, targeting efforts to improve FOIA processing and reduce backlogs and delays, and quickly convening a FOIA Delays Commission to compile and identify other areas for improvements.

There are many problems with FOIA administration today and many areas for improvement.  Some require executive branch action while others would require legislation.  Any legislative actions around FOIA will have attract the support of Senate and House leaders, a growing number of whom want to see the Freedom of Information Act inform the American public while protecting what deserves protection and serve as a dependable tool for obtaining from government vital information in a timely, efficient and impartial manner.

Spring cleaning for b(3) provisions

Spring is a time of growth, change, and ritual; for the openness community, that means Sunshine Week, the release of agency annual FOIA reports, and fresh hope that this year will bring more transparency from the federal government.

Specifically, this year’s FOIA reports detail the use of several new b(3) provisions:

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Fixing FOIA: Commentators reacting to DOJ’s reversal

The reaction was swift when the Justice Department confirmed in a letter to Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy that they would not move forward with their plan to say documents don’t exist when, in fact, they do.  You can read the reaction through a simple Google search.

Fixing FOIA update: Justice backs away from “lying”

Today we’re happy to note the Justice Department is withdrawing its proposed rule to sanction responding to certain FOIA requests for law enforcement records as if records did not exist when, in fact, information does exist (but is out of FOIA’s reach).

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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 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.

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