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):

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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A FOIA Dashboard: Getting it right

We’re excited to see that the Justice Department will be creating a FOIA Dashboard as its flagship program to let the public and agencies see how agencies are faring in fulfulling FOIA requests, and to help agencies compare their performance with other agencies to see where they can improve.  We’ll be writing more about what should go into this dashboard and what it should allow agencies and the public to do, but here’s a first take. Read more of this post

Can an agency get credit if it reduces backlogs?

This may sound like asking whether a tree falling in a forest with no one around makes any noise at all, but bear with me here:  If an agency improves their backlog of FOIA requests — actually makes a dent in it — would anyone know?

Maybe not.

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The myth and reality of the overbroad request

Some panelists from agencies at a recent transparency event (the March 16 Freedom of Information Day Celebration (pdf), put on by the Collaboration on Government Secrecy) flagged overbroad FOIA requests as a substantial source of inefficiency in processing FOIA requests. While this analysis is neither new nor controversial, it did make us wonder: What percentage of requests do agencies seek to narrow?

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