Farm Bill Update: Showdown looms on FOIA’s balanced protections versus special interest

Senator Charles Grassley is again poised — as soon as today, although the timing is far from clear — to present a broad exemption that would set a bad precedent for the administration of FOIA.  We recently wrote about our temporary win.

The proposal would exempt from disclosure the GPS coordinates of farms as well as basic contact information for owners and operators of farms and food processing facilities. Such entities are corporations, although Sen. Grassley and others are arguing that these locations are both businesses and individual residences, thus they deserve special privacy protections.

We strongly believe that the FOIA already balances the public interest in disclosure with trade secrets, individual privacy, national security and other interests. A better approach would be to reinforce the notion that existing laws such as the Freedom of Information Act already protect personal privacy.

New, unnecessary exemptions set a bad precedent for keeping the public informed of important public safety events.  For example, the FOIA’s existing balanced protections were adequate when the USA Today reported on why a recall of tainted beef didn’t include lunchboxes, waste in the food subsidy payments system or shortcomings in the federal farm loan program.

Successful fight to stop farm bill secrecy — for now

Senator Patrick Leahy and open government groups have stopped at least for now the Grassley amendment that would bar disclosure of basic phone directory information for owners and operators of livestock and poultry processing facilities and farms.  We explained our concerns about the provision quickly, other groups weighed in as well, and Senator Leahy’s worked diligently to explain the ramifications of this seeming milquetoast provision to his colleagues, and it became clearer that the proposal had problems.  We appreciate the delay to afford open government groups the opportunity to work with Senators Grassley and Boxer to find a better approach that upholds the public’s interest in a transparent and accountable government.

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Livestock owners’ “phone directory” info should not be covered with blanket of secrecy

(Updated 5/23/13 at 1:18pm)

Corrected 5/23/13 at 1:30pm

The full Senate is taking up the farm bill (S. 954), and one amendment three amendments (Amendment 970, 1011 and 1097) from Senator Charles Grassley contain nearly identical language that would eliminate basic “phone directory” information from disclosure, including the name, address, contact info (including email address), GPS coordinates and other identifying information of livestock owners and operators. They claim it’s a defense against domestic terrorism.

The EPA in the last few weeks released such information under FOIA to one (or more) environment groups. That release was criticized by some in Congress. However, the controversy around farmer and rancher’s address and contact information goes back a while to when the USDA was trying to create a system to trace back foodborne illness outbreaks to the source (e.g., the farm) within 72 48 hours to abide by trade agreements. (And it may go back further than that.)  There was much opposition among ranchers and farmers to that program, known as the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).  Eventually, that program was dropped.

During past discussions about this data, we tried to accommodate those concerns and carefully consider when the journalists would find that information useful in reporting (such as when an outbreak occurs) and find some compromise text, but we did not find anyone pushing the exemption who was willing to compromise.

The amendment is ill-considered and should not be voted on in such a rushed manner, especially when the interests in disclosure are as significant as the safety of the food supply. At a very minimum the public has an interest in learning the location of farms implicated in a health scare so the public can evaluate how those responsible for the safety of the food supply are responding.  The current amendment fails to balance any interest in keeping the records confidential with the public interest in disclosure.  The amendment creates a bad precedent for the federal government and for the public that has a strong interest in having full and fair information about newsworthy events regarding the safety of the food supply. Operators of any type of business already have exemptions written into FOIA to protect trade secrets and individual privacy.

This amendment is bad for transparency and accountability and shouldn’t be taken up until sponsors work to address the concerns with the proposal.

FOIA Online goes live; new tool to track FOIA requests, responses

Journalists who regularly use the federal FOIA will complain bitterly about lost requests, long delays and agency responses that give no indication whether and when the agency will actually turn over documents.  But a new system that went live October 1 promises to make it easier on agencies and requesters alike to keep track of requests and make the FOIA process more efficient.

The new system, called FOIA Online, allows anyone to search pending FOIA requests and documents already released as the result of previous FOIA requests, submit a new FOIA request to an agency, track requests, see the status of any request and receive agency correspondence and documents all within the new system. And for FOIA geeks like us, it provides anyone the ability to search the tracking data, identify trends and keep tabs on how well (or poorly) any agency is fulfilling its obligations under FOIA.  We also hope it’s a useful tool for government folks responsible for keeping the FOIA responses flowing to find and fix the bottlenecks that slow FOIA responses.

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Anticipating FOIA requests & the oil spill: an update

Here’s an update on our earlier post urging agencies to affirmatively post online documents, videos, images and other information about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico before a FOIA request comes in.

It was a quick post, and it would have been a better piece if we had described what agencies have done to post information online.

BP operates a joint information center where many agencies, including the Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), post information.  The joint website also includes BP and Transocean, which runs the Deepwater Horizon rig where the accident occurred.  The agencies themselves have a great deal of background information and daily updates on their response.

Despite this communications effort, two controversies have emerged: First, is the dispersant used, Clorexit, doing more bad than good when used in the unprecedented quantities that BP is pumping deep underwater in the Gulf?  EPA today ordered BP to select a less toxic dispersant, submit it to EPA within 24 hours, and begin using it on the spill within 72 hours.

Second, there are questions about how much oil is leaking into the Gulf each day, where the plumes of oil are sitting below the water’s surface, and whether the oil has reached the so-called “loop current” where it would hitchhike a ride around Florida and spread devastation up the East Coast.  By now, video images are widespread showing billows of a smoke-like substance rising from the broken pipe laying on the seabed.  Scientists reportedly are criticizing the lack of monitoring of the spill.

Despite BP’s efforts to clean up the spill, at this time, we did not see the video of the seabed (and archival footage from the start of the spill, for that matter) on the joint information center’s website.  This would be a good place to start. And keep up the work of keeping the public informed by anticipating other FOIA requests (or viewing the requests that have already come in and posting repeatedly requested information) and posting those responsive documents on the joint center’s website.

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