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FOIA Shows Texas Border Wall Could Bisect Retirement Community, Wildlife Preserves: FRINFORMSUM 11/16/2017

November 16, 2017

Border Wall Plans in Texas would Disrupt Retirement Community, Wildlife Preserves

A FOIA request from the Sierra Club’s borderlands team won the release of documents, which were then shared with the Texas Observer, showing tentative border wall plans in the Rio Grande Valley. One of the releases – a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map – “shows where the administration expects to build 33 miles of wall in 15 different segments, including portions that would tear through three wildlife areas.”

Documents also show how the Trump administration ranks the legal and topographical difficulty levels of the segments where the wall might be built. One of the “most challenging” sections would cut off upward of 100 residents of a “Nice RV park, many retirees live there permanently.” It would also bisect a nearly 800-acre preserve that is one of the continent’s most popular birding destinations, as well as its neighboring butterfly sanctuary, and one of the country’s oldest protected wildlife habitats.

The documents also show that, at least near the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, wall and levee construction is projected to cost $45 million, or $15 million per mile. Government plans for Santa Ana also include a 150-foot “enforcement zone” that would include “an all-weather road bordered by underground fiber-optic motion sensors.”

The documents can be read here.

The border wall was the subject of a separate FOIA request from USA Today that was published two weeks ago and shed light on the “unusually confusing and haphazard process” of contractors bidding to build border wall prototypes. Nearly 200 pages of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) documents reveal communications with companies seeking clarity on a rushed, murky bidding process that initially only gave companies 12 days to submit proposals for 30-foot high prototypes that could lead to a $300-million five-year contract.

Torture Approver Gets Senate OK

The Senate approved Steven Bradbury, “the principal author of the legal justifications for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’” as the top lawyer for the Transportation Department this week by a vote of 50 to 47. “Mr. Bradbury’s memos were permission slips to torture,” said Arizona Senator John McCain of Bradbury’s confirmation, “This is a dark, dark chapter in the history of the United States Senate.”

The National Security Archive has a number of declassified documents featuring Bradbury, including an October 23, 2001 DOJ Office of Legal Counsel Opinion Addressing the Domestic Use of Military Force to Combat Terrorist Activities. This document and more can be found in our Torturing Democracy exhibit.

FOIA Lawsuit Seeks Info on Interior Department Staff Reassignments

A Department of Interior whistleblower, Joel Clement, is filing a FOIA lawsuit against his former agency for documents on controversial staff reassignments after the agency failed to release any documents in response to his request. Clement filed a FOIA request in September seeking information on his own July reassignment and the reassignment of dozens of senior agency staff “as part of a sweeping reorganization.” Clement argues he was reassigned to a position he was unqualified for because he spoke about the dangers of climate change; his FOIA request also sought all communications discussing his work on climate change.

Books by Dr. Richelson.

In Memoriam: Jeffrey T. Richelson, 1949-2017: Author of Essential Reference Works on Top Secrets, Indefatigable User of the FOIA, Provider of Primary Sources to Students and the World

The National Security Archive mourns the passing of our most senior fellow, Dr. Jeffrey T. Richelson, prolific Freedom of Information Act requester and critically-praised author of extraordinary reference works on intelligence, nuclear weapons, China, terrorism, military uses of space, and espionage.

Dr. Richelson passed away on Saturday, November 11, 2017, at his home in Los Angeles after a months-long battle against cancer, according to his brother, Charles. He was 67.

Jeff ranks among the founders of the National Security Archive vision – that systematic Freedom of Information Act requests could force the government to open files that otherwise would remain secret indefinitely, and once open, these files could enrich scholarship and journalism and the public debate on issues like nuclear weapons and spying that very much needed public attention and skepticism.

Jeff never sought the spotlight for open government achievements that would have been impossible without him. But his work lives on, not just in his marvelously useful books but in the cornucopia of sources he made possible for generations of students and experts to come.

Unearthing Soviet Secrets in Ukraine’s Archives

The National Security Archive’s Nate Jones has some valuable advice for anyone interested in conducting archival research in Ukraine gleaned from his experience as the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project’s fellow at Odessa State University’s Center for Nonproliferation earlier this year. Read the whole article for the nuts and bolts advice of what to do when you arrive in Ukraine, and for those waffling on whether or not the visit might bear fruit, Jones notes: “There are countless gems now available to researchers in the Ukrainian Archives and waiting to be discovered. While the Ukrainian geopolitical situation remains fraught, its historical archives have never been more accessible. Another window into the history of the Soviet Union has been opened.”

Inside the 2018 NDAA – Part 1

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act contains a number of sections relevant to cyber security, and our Cyber Vault project has culled the voluminous document to find the most important cyber information – including sections on “Pilot programs on data integration strategies for the Department of Defense” and “Repeal of domestic source restriction related to wearable electronics.”

These documents are among the 14 NDAA highlights posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, November 15. Next week we will continue our focus on the most interesting cyber sections from the NDAA with an additional 13 highlights.

TBT Pick – An Incomplete Collection of Jeff Richelson’s Greatest Hits

This week’s #TBT picks highlight Jeff Richelson’s enduring contribution around unveiling the activities of the nation’s super-secret intelligence agencies – notably the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the National Reconnaissance Office. These works include:

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Unearthing Soviet Secrets in Ukraine’s Archives

November 13, 2017

This post originally appeared on The Wilson Center’s blog, Sources and Methods

Documents within the KGB Archive.

The archives of Ukraine are open and they are filled with former Soviet secrets.

Anyone conducting research on the Soviet Union, nuclear history, or the Cold War should visit Ukraine as soon as possible.

After being selected as the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project’s fellow at Odessa State University’s Center for Nonproliferation, I first felt delight—the university, after all, was just a 10-minute walk down the hill to the iconic beaches of the Black Sea. But then apprehension set in: What if the archives were closed? What if they were open but bereft of key documents? What if an American foreigner was not viewed kindly by the archivists?

Fortunately, I can report that each of these fears was unfounded. The Ukrainian Archives are open (including to foreigners) and filled with historically important, previously secret documents.

The city of Odessa has very good research institutions, including its universities, regional archive, and research library (excellent for finding Ukrainian and Russian language secondary resources). Kharkiv also may be of interest to researchers looking at revolutionary Ukraine and Soviet nuclear development; it was the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1919 to January 1934 and retains documents –including on the Soviet nuclear program—from that period. But for me, the most valuable archival gems were in Kiev.

The sign for TsDAVO.

The first logical place to begin may be The Central Executive Archive of Ukraine (literally translated as “Central State Archive of the Supreme Organs and Administrations of Ukraine”), referred to by researchers as, “TsDAVO.” Though it is no doubt wise to plan ahead, researchers can access the archive without an appointment simply by showing a passport. Additionally, a large quantity of TsDAVO’s finding aids are available online and searchable (in Ukrainian).1
Included in the extremely large collections are the files of the Socialist Republic of Ukraine’s Council of Ministers and corpuses from former presidents of Ukraine Kuchma and Kravchuk.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs also provide researchers access to their historic (generally pre-1991) documents. Access must be arranged in advance and these institutions are a bit bureaucratically trickier to get into, but researchers including Mariana Budjeryn have shown that it is certainly possible and that the documentary fruits are worth pursuing.

But the crown jewel of the Ukrainian Archives, at least to this researcher, was the Archive of the Security Services of Ukraine, or simply the KGB Archive. An official invitation must be obtained to achieve access to the KGB Archive, but this can be fairly easily obtained via email by contacting the address listed on the archives’ website. Under the leadership of its director Andriy Kohut, the Ukrainian KGB is demonstrating a path of openness that the archives of other formerly communist countries would be wise to follow.

Once inside, researchers have the incredible opportunity for an inside view of how the Soviet organs of state operated, both domestically and internationally. Internal security records from Ukraine’s incorporation into the Soviet Union until its collapse are largely preserved. One typical example is the KGB’s wary and meticulously thorough reporting of its discovery that youths in Kiev were beginning to enjoy a new type of music named “punk rock.” Many of these millions of pages of domestic surveillance files, however, are much more heartbreaking. They include the investigations, arrests, deportation, and executions of millions of Ukrainians in the Soviet Union.

Though not as complete as its collection of files on Soviet citizens living in Ukraine, and certainly less comprehensive than the KGB’s central files controlled in Moscow, the Ukrainian KGB Archive nonetheless presents researchers with an unprecedented2 window into the KGB and Soviet Union’s international security operations, foreign policy objectives, and even nuclear history. Fonds 9 (Orders of the KGB), 13 (KGB publications) and 16 (Memoranda between the KGB and Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) provide a chronicle record of Moscow’s security decisions—including such examples as rebuilding from the destruction of World War II, the surveillance of followers (in Ukraine and abroad) of Stepan Bandera, reports from the Odessa docks during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia as viewed from Kiev, and—in a document that certainly increased my heart rate– the official transcript of Yuri Andropov’s May 1981 justification for the creation of Operation RYaN as director of the KGB.

The lessons I learned—and now teach—at SICAR (The Summer Institute on Conduction Archival Research) all largely applied in Ukraine. The most important step is to plan ahead and start early. Get to the archive first thing in the morning, present small gifts to the archivists, and secure the help from a Ukrainian expert able to point you towards where you should be looking.

At each of the archives I mentioned the finding aids are in Ukrainian but—fortunately for me!—the documents themselves are in Russian. Finally, the KGB Archive allows photography of documents, but other archives prohibit it and photocopying was generally not available. Nonetheless, it seemed that the vast majority of archivists and researchers ignored this prohibition; researchers were constantly snapping away. I used an app called Photoscan on my smart phone (flash off) and was extremely pleased with the quality and cataloging of my archival finds.

There are countless gems now available to researchers in the Ukrainian Archives and waiting to be discovered. While the Ukrainian geopolitical situation remains fraught, its historical archives have never been more accessible. Another window into the history of the Soviet Union has been opened.

1. Also available online is a substantial and growing Electronic Archive of Ukrainian Liberation Movement, including a very large collection on the Chernobyl disaster.

2. For an excellent article on research in other Eastern archives, be sure to see “Researching Through the Back Door: Field Notes from East of the Iron Curtain” by Simon Miles.

FBI Consults Public Affairs Office, Not Advisory Board, for Removing Public Info from Website: FRINFORMSUM 11/9/2017

November 9, 2017

Anemic FBI Crime Report Published in Consultation with Public Affairs, not Advisory Board

FiveThirtyEight has an excellent article on the FBI’s 2016 Crime in the United States report – “a collection of crime statistics gathered from over 18,000 law-enforcement agencies” that contains 70 percent fewer data tables than previous iterations. The missing data from the 2016 report concerns homicides, arrests, and valuable statistical information on the relationship between victims and offenders, weapons used, and “the only national estimate of annual gang murders.”

The report – at least traditionally – “is an invaluable resource for researchers who track national crime trends and is a rich reference database for journalists and members of the general public who are interested in official crime statistics.”

The changes were made without consulting the traditional review body – the Advisory Policy Board.  The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program said that, instead, the decision had been made after consulting the Office of Public Affairs and was based on the “number of times a user actually viewed the tables on the internet.”

Disappearing War Data

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has redacted previously-reported metrics on Afghan security forces – the main recipients of $120 billion in US aid to the country – from its latest quarterly report at the request of the Afghan government. John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan, faulted the decision, saying: “The government usually doesn’t classify good news. I don’t want any nameless, faceless Afghan bureaucrat telling the American taxpayer what they ought to know.” Mr. Sopko went on to call the seemingly arbitrary classification a “slippery slope.”

The withheld information was previously classified once in 2015; reporting from The New York Times notes that “While the quarterly reports have had a classified annex since 2015, most of the data categories redacted in the latest release have been available to the public since the inspector general started putting out the reports in 2008.” These data categories include the number of personnel employed by the security forces and the number of combat casualties.

The disappearing data comes at a particularly bad time for researchers interested in metrics the US keeps on its presence in Afghanistan. The Army’s historical field staff, which maintained more than 20 historians in Saigon during Vietnam, hasn’t place a historian in the field in Afghanistan since 2014, believing average soldiers could be trained to save document and hand them off, along with sources of information. The Center for Military History’s Jerry Brooks says this theory overlooked the fact that “that people are lazy.” Historians dealing with Iraq have avoided some of these lapses, but still suffer from fewer personnel in the field than in past wars.

Briefing Book, Deputies Committee Meeting, ca. 12/13/1991 (Secret)

Engaging North Korea

The George H.W. Bush administration understood North Korea might be negotiating in bad faith in the early 1990s, yet concluded that negotiations were the best way to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, according to FOIA-released documents posted by the National Security Archive.

The documents provide valuable historical context for U.S. policymakers as President Donald J. Trump travels to Asia to engage with allies over the North Korean nuclear threat.  Many of the issues being confronted today echo those U.S. strategists faced two decades ago.

For example, one of the questions the Bush I administration debated was the advisability of military force. But even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney rejected the option, telling South Korean and Japanese leaders they should not consider “military measures” since “such discussion could jeopardize our initial diplomatic strategy,” according to a high-level internal briefing book.

On the matter of China’s motives, American policymakers were candid enough to acknowledge their uncertainty but did conclude that Beijing was unlikely to do anything that might threaten the regime in Pyongyang.

U.S. negotiating strategy included developing “nooses” to tighten around North Korea if it continued to delay, while understanding the importance of preparing the ground for multilateral coercive measures even as talks went ahead.

25 Years Not Enough Notice for Agencies to Release JFK Files on Time

Even with 25-years notice mandating that every agency’s remaining records on the JFK assassination be released by October 26, 2017, the CIA and FBI were, bafflingly, unable to meet the deadline – continuing to release records weeks after the due date.

The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act) requires that all agency assassination records be publicly disclosed in full by October 26, 2017 – unless the President upheld an agency appeal and “certifies” that releasing a record would cause specific harm. This did not happen.

On October 26, 2,891 documents were released – but President Trump “bowed to pressure from the C.I.A. and F.B.I. by withholding thousands of additional papers pending six more months of review.”

On November 3, 676 records were released.

On November 9, today, 13,213 additional records were released.

Archive Senior Analyst Peter Kornbluh told the Washington Post, “most of the papers that were released didn’t warrant the long-held secrecy. He pointed to a never-before-seen memo by Hoover, dated two days after the assassination. Hoover says in the memo that he wanted to have ‘something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin,’ and that he thought the investigation should be kept secret because of Oswald’s contacts with the Cuban embassy in Mexico City and the Soviet Embassy in Washington.” What, Kornbluh asks, “is the secrecy around that document really about?”

The Ghosts of Langley

The National Security Archive’s John Prados will be discussing his new book, The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness, at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. today, November 9, at 6:30. The book release coincides with the agency’s 70th anniversary and “takes a provocative and panoramic look at the Agency through the eyes of key figures in CIA history and in light of its covert actions around the world. Drawing on a wealth of newly declassified documents, join Prados as he throws fresh light on classic agency operations such as the Bay of Pigs, and discerns a disturbing continuum from the practice of covert actions from Iran in the 1950s, Chile and Vietnam in the 1970s, and Central America in the 1980s to the current secret wars in the Muslim world.”

Ticket information available here.

FOIA Food For Thought: The FOIA Ecosystem

Are you interested in a today’s current FOIA landscape and will be in the D.C. area November 16? If so, please join us for an American Society of Access Professionals “Food For Thought Training Seminar” featuring National Security Archive director Tom Blanton. Blanton will discuss the FOIA ecosystem, lessons learned from his decades in the FOIA trenches, the symbiotic relationship between requesters and processors, and how both sides can work together to improve the FOIA process and release more information to the public. RSVP information can be found here.

TBT Pick – How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?

This week’s TBT pick is chosen with the newly declassified North Korea documents in mind and is a 2010 posting on Nixon’s search for military options towards North Korea. The posting details how, “Four decades ago, in response to North Korean military provocations, the U.S. developed contingency plans that included selected use of tactical nuclear weapons against Pyongyang’s military facilities and the possibility of full-scale war.”

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What Would Cheney Advise Trump on North Korea?

November 8, 2017

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Roh Tae Woo exchange toasts at a state dinner in Seoul in January 1992.

As President Trump hopscotches across East Asia hoping to develop a viable strategy on North Korean nukes with the regional powers, newly posted declassified documents from the George H.W. Bush administration offer some valuable context on the challenges of dealing with Pyongyang.

Trump’s preferred m.o. may be to blow up every strategy, concept, and approach any predecessor ever conceived, but it’s likely his aides are angling diligently for policy options grounded in real world experience.  It’s one thing to pillory the Democratic Clinton administration, but harder for most Republicans to do the same with Bush 41, for many the standard-bearer of stolid, pragmatic, New World Order foreign policy-making.

According to an insight-filled trove of records National Security Archive Senior Fellow Bob Wampler obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the senior Bush administration went through many of the same kinds of questions in the early 1990s that U.S. strategists still wrangle with today.

Top on the list of conclusions?  North Korea might be inclined to deal in bad faith but the best way to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula was to continue to negotiate.  Bush had already taken a ground-breaking step (one the current commander-in-chief would have Tweeted mercilessly about) of pulling back all U.S. short-range tactical nuclear weapons deployed overseas, including the ones in South Korea.

Briefing Book, Deputies Committee Meeting, ca. 12/13/1991 (Secret)

In line with this initiative, American policy-makers focusing on North Korea insisted that the use of force should not be on the table, at least at first.  No less a hawk than Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told South Korean and Japanese leaders they shouldn’t even consider “military measures” since merely discussing the possibility could put their initial diplomatic strategy in jeopardy, according a Deputies-level briefing book from December 1991.

A key to the U.S. approach two decades ago was recognizing the need to balance the interests of the major regional players – South Korea, Japan, and China.  South Korea was already on essentially the same plane as the White House in terms of prioritizing negotiations – which no-one was under the illusion would be soft.

Seoul’s idea was that the North’s vast economic problems would let the allies “continue to tighten the screws” on Pyongyang to get it to loosen its grip on its population and begin to come to terms on a range of bilateral agreements including on nuclear issues.  U.S. strategists used a similar metaphor – contriving “nooses” to put around North Korea if it tried to delay.  Multilateral coercive measures were very much an option for the Bush administration.

As for China, American policymakers admitted they didn’t quite know how to judge its motives, but they knew enough to be sure Beijing was not going to act in a way that would fundamentally undermine the regime in Pyongyang.

Today’s e-book by Bob Wampler is the latest in a series on U.S. policy toward the two Koreas posted over the years.  (Links are provided in the posting.)  See also the two major digitized collections of thousands of documents on the U.S.-Korea policy published as part of the growing Digital National Security Archive (DNSA). The series is subscription-based through the academic publisher ProQuest, and is available through many major public and university libraries.


DOJ OIP Head Implies New FOIA Portal will be “Better than the Letter of the Law”: FRINFORMSUM 10/26/2017

October 26, 2017

DOJ OIP Head Implies New FOIA Portal will be “Better than the Letter of the Law”

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 mandates the creation of a “consolidated online request portal that allows a member of the public to submit a request for records under subsection (a) to any agency from a single website. The portal may include any additional tools the Director of the Office of Management and Budget finds will improve the implementation of this section.”

The head of the Justice Department office that “encourages” FOIA compliance, Melanie Pustay, recently told Government Matters that her office, the Office of Information Policy (OIP), will be looking at the national FOIA portal as “an opportunity to make improvements to FOIA administration more broadly.” Pustay also agreed with the host’s assertion that OIP is looking at its portal mandate from a broader perspective than what Congress intended; indeed, that it is “better than the letter of the law.”

OIP contracted the General Services Administration’s tech team, 18f, to build the portal, and 18f has made progress on its portal publicly available on github. (OIP contracted 18f for its last go-round at a FOIA portal, which was a sleek consolidated directory for FOIA offices, not a portal.)

18f’s current beta site appears to allow requesters to select an agency and submit a FOIA to that agency through the portal – but not much else, and certainly nothing beyond the letter of the law.

Pustay is clear that after the new portal is unrelieved early next year, OIP wants to continue to expand its capabilities.

The next area beyond request submission that OIP and 18f should improve is searches.

18f’s own FOIA recommendations refer to the FOIA “black hole” where requesters find it nearly impossible to figure out the status of their request. If a national FOIA portal could also shed light on where FOIA requests sit in real-time (what agency it’s at, which component at that agency, and which office or person is “working” on the request) it would be a good start.

The National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight circulated an unofficial online survey on issues that arise in FOIA searches, the results of which can be found here.

FOIA Shows DEA Lied About Deadly Raid

The Drug Enforcement Administration has steadfastly maintained that a 2012 raid in the dead of night on the Mosquito Coast that left four Honduran civilians dead was the result of an exchange of gunfire between a canoe carrying DEA agents and a water taxi ferrying the Honduran civilians upriver.

A three-hour video released through FOIA (after a joint report by the inspectors general at both State and Justice) “strongly suggest” that the DEA’s version of the story is wrong – and that the fire came only from the DEA canoe.

“The video was released to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, with the law firm Jenner & Block taking on the case pro bono. A federal judge ordered the release of the video in January 2016, and the agency appealed. In June 2017, an appeals court ruled against the D.E.A., and the agency released the video.” The video was released in redacted form.

The DEA unit that carried out the raid, the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams, was disbanded before the release of the joint IG report. After the report’s release, “A bipartisan group of four senators asserted that the D.E.A. and State Department ‘repeatedly and knowingly misled members of Congress and congressional staff.’”

Border Wall Bidding Process Rushed and Confusing, FOIA Shows

A FOIA request from USA Today sheds light on the “unusually confusing and haphazard process” of contractors bidding to build prototypes of President Trump’s proposed Border Wall along the U.S. -Mexico border. Nearly 200 pages of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) documents reveal communications with companies seeking clarity on a rushed, murky bidding process that initially only gave companies 12 days to submit proposals for 30-foot high prototypes that could lead to a $300-million five-year contract. The FOIA-release also shows companies expressing “frustration that the deadline and page limits didn’t give them enough time to describe their proposals and their work experience, which could put them at a disadvantage.”

Reviewing the records Scott Amey, General Counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, concluded “It seemed more like an effort to get something done in a certain time frame and take credit for moving the border wall idea along, and make good on a campaign promise, than on getting or soliciting ideas that may be in the best interest of government taxpayers.”

Chicago Tribune

The U.S. government’s most significant prosecution of an American media outlet prior to the Pentagon Papers fell through during World War II when a grand jury refused to indict the Chicago Tribune in 1942 for an article stating the U.S. Navy had advance knowledge of Japanese plans to attack Midway Island in June of that year.

Documents recently posted by the National Security Archive detail FBI, Justice Department, and Navy efforts to charge the Tribune with damaging national security by indirectly alluding to U.S. penetration of Japan’s naval codes – one of the most sensitive secrets of the day.

The Tribune case was the first time the U.S. government tried to pursue charges against a major media source under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information – making it of particular interest in the current political environment.

The posting draws on grand jury records that had been sealed for decades until historian Elliot Carlson, joined by the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, the National Security Archive, and other historians’ organizations, filed a lawsuit for their release.

Cyber Vault Highlight: DOD’s Delegation of Authority

A National Security Archive FOIA request has won the release of a Defense Department memo delegating authority to negotiate agreements with other nations for cooperation related to information security and critical infrastructure protection. The unclassified memo is dated March 5, 2002.

The document is one of 12 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, October 25.

Thanks to Michael Ravnitzky for our New URL!

The National Security Archive’s blog, Unredacted, can now be reached at the URL as well as Many thanks to Michael Ravnitzky for donating the domain name!

TBT Pick – The Negroponte File

This week’s #TBT pick is The Negroponte File, which contains 392 cables and memos recording Negroponte’s daily, and even hourly, activities as the powerful Ambassador to Honduras during the contra war in the early 1980s. They include dozens of cables in which the Ambassador sought to undermine regional peace efforts such as the Contadora initiative that ultimately won Costa Rican president Oscar Arias a Nobel Prize, as well as multiple reports of meetings and conversations with Honduran military officers who were instrumental in providing logistical support and infrastructure for CIA covert operations in support of the contras against Nicaragua -“our special project” as Negroponte refers to the contra war in the cable traffic.

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FOIA Federal Advisory Committee Highlights Email Preservation, FOIA Searches: FRINFORMSUM 10/19/2017

October 19, 2017

“…Congress did not intend the fees be erected as barriers to citizens access, it is quite clear that the Congress did intend that agencies recover [???] of their costs.”

FOIA Federal Advisory Committee Highlights Email Preservation, FOIA Searches

The Federal FOIA Advisory Committee met today (video available here and other resources here), with updates from the three subcommittees (searches, efficiencies and resources, and proactive disclosure), and a very interesting presentation on NARA’s email Capstone policy from Jason Baron, formerly NARA’s director of litigation and now counsel at Drinker Biddle LLP.

Highlights from the meeting include a reminder that OMB has – by all visible accounts – yet to take any action on the recommendation of the previous session of the Advisory Committee: that it updates its fee guidance, which currently dates from 1987 and is missing a key word.

The Searches subcommittee unveiled a draft set of recommendations to improve search capabilities and promote accountability. The recommendations include, but are not limited to:

  • Requesting that the Justice Department collect detailed information as part of each agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Report regarding the specific methods and technologies agencies are using to search their electronic records, particularly email, in response to FOIA requests.
  • Increasing the ability for FOIA offices to procure technology to aid federal agencies to more efficiently conduct records searches to the greatest extent possible.
  • Ensuring that agency emails can be efficiently and accurately searched electronically by FOIA offices.
  • Weighing the benefits of using eDiscovery tools to conduct more accurate and timely FOIA searches against the potential legal costs of untimely or inadequate FOIA searches.

(Earlier this year the National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight teamed up to conduct an online survey for both FOIA processors and requesters to better understand how agencies search for records. The summary and survey results can be found here.)

One of the most important issues for the Committee to issue guidance on this session will be 508 compliance (go here for more on 508, which refers to a section of the Rehabilitation Act that has required agencies to ensure that persons with disabilities have comparable access to government information as persons without disabilities). While not yet out of the Subcommittee, recommendations from the Committee should underscore that documents should already be being created 508 compliant by agencies before they are ever requested under FOIA or posted proactively. Further, agencies should only purchase FOIA processing software that produces documents that are 508 compliant. But perhaps most importantly, non-compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act should not be used as a justification by agencies to remove documents from their FOIA websites or refuse to post information proactively.

FOIA Helps Show How Industry Lobbying Hamstrung DEA’s Most Potent Tool for Regulating Drug Companies

A must-read Washington Post/60 Minutes investigation exposes the drug industry’s covert, years-long effort to weaken the Drug Enforcement Administration – particularly the office that regulates the drug industry, the Office of Diversion Control – in its ability to suspend suspicious opioid sales to distributors across the country.

Prior to the passage of April 2016’s Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, the DEA routinely stopped suspicious sales (like when a drug company sends 258,000 hydrocodone pills in one month to a West Virginia town of 2,924) with an immediate suspension order. But the new bill “changed four decades of DEA practice” by requiring the agency to show that drug shipments did not just pose an “imminent danger” to the community, but “demonstrate that a company’s actions represent ‘a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat,’ a much higher bar.”

FOIA requests submitted by the Post and 60 Minutes show the bill had the drug industry’s desired effect; “Not a single [suspension] order has targeted a distributor or manufacturer since late 2015.” The DEA and the Justice Department have “denied or delayed” dozens more relevant FOIA requests on the issue, and the Post is suing the DOJ for the remainder of the records.

ICE Scrubs Documents on Controversial Deportation Program from FOIA Library

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has re-launched its FOIA library after it spent nearly two weeks offline on ICE’s claim it was under review. But the new site is now at least 77-documents lighter. Russ Kick was first to note that the agency took the opportunity to scrub dozens of documents on the agency’s controversial “Secure Communities” program, a deportation program that was ended by the Obama administration and restarted under Trump. Kick has posted all of the deleted documents on

FOIA Releases Hint that Coal Industry Not Optimistic about Domestic Growth, Even Under Trump

FOIA requests to the Bureau of Land Management show coal industry executives acknowledging “the continuing decline in demand” for coal, and in some instances withdrawing lease applications for federal coal mining. The FOIA releases come after the Trump administration’s reversal of President Obama’s 2016 three-year moratorium on federal coal leases and the BLM’s request that companies update their applications in light of the reversal. The Washington Post’s Adam Federman notes that “In the six months since that announcement at the EPA, companies have withdrawn five of 44 pending lease applications, and at least eight are indefinitely on hold.”

The FOIA responses show coal companies citing “depressed” market conditions in withdrawing their leases, suggesting coal companies “have begun to lose faith in the long-term viability of the domestic market” and undercutting the Trump administration’s efforts to revive it by reversing Obama-era policies.

US Embassy Tracked Indonesia Mass Murder in 1965

The US government had detailed knowledge that the Indonesian Army was conducting a campaign of mass murder against the country’s Communist Party (PKI) starting in 1965, according to newly declassified documents recently posted by the National Security Archive.  The new materials further show that diplomats in the Jakarta Embassy kept a record of which PKI leaders were being executed, and that US officials actively supported Indonesian Army efforts to destroy the country’s left-leaning labor movement.

The 39 documents come from a collection of nearly 30,000 pages of files constituting much of the daily record of the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 1964-1968. The collection, much of it formerly classified, was processed by the National Declassification Center in response to growing public interest in the remaining US documents concerning the mass killings of 1965-1966.  American and Indonesian human rights and freedom of information activists, filmmakers, as well as a group of US Senators led by Tom Udall (D-NM), had called for the materials to be made public.

Trump’s Iran Misstep

“But the president missed the real takeaway from his stroll through history,” writes the National Security Archive’s Malcolm Byrne in his recent Washington Post article on Trump’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal. “Precisely because the relationship has been so bitter, getting a major deal of any kind with Tehran — even one as unsatisfying as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — was a remarkable feat that is unlikely to be replicated. This is the reality of the deal that Trump and other critics simply haven’t grasped — and why they’re on track to make a major, perhaps irreversible, mistake in U.S.-Iran relations.” The article can be read in its entirety here.

Documenting US Role in Democracy’s Fall and Dictator’s Rise in Chile

The New York Times recently highlighted National Security Archive analyst Peter Kornbluh’s work on the Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights exhibit, “Secrets of State: The Declassified History of the Chilean Dictatorship.” “To see on a piece of paper, for example, the president of the United States ordering the C.I.A. to preemptively overthrow a democratically elected president in Chile is stunning,” Mr. Kornbluh told the Times. “The importance of having these documents in the museum is for the new generations of Chileans to actually see them.”

Peter Kornbluh curated the exhibition, which includes redacted documents and C.I.A. memos. Tomas Munita for The New York Times

The FOIA Ecosystem

Are you an American Society of Access Professionals member who will be in the D.C. area November 16? If so, please join us for a Food For Thought Training Seminar featuring National Security Archive director Tom Blanton. Blanton will discuss the FOIA ecosystem, lessons learned from his decades in the FOIA trenches, the symbiotic relationship between requesters and processors, and how both sides can work together to improve the FOIA process and release more information to the public. RSVP information can be found here.

The Cuban Missile Crisis at 55

The US military drew up plans to occupy Cuba and establish a temporary government headed by a US “commander and military governor” during the 1962 missile crisis, according to the recently declassified “Military Government Proclamation No. 1” posted Monday by the Archive to mark the anniversary.

“All persons in the occupied territory will obey immediately and without question all enactments and orders of the military government,” stated the proclamation. “Resistance of the United States Armed Forces will be forcefully stamped out. Serious offenders will be dealt with severely,” it warned. “So long as you remain peaceable and comply with my orders, you will be subjected to no greater interference than may be required by military exigencies.”

Defense Department redactions obscure the faces and insignia of honor guard members in many of the war casualty images.

TBT Pick – Return of the Fallen

This week’s #TBT pick is from 2005 and details the Pentagon’s release – in response to a FOIA lawsuit – of hundreds of previously secret images of casualties returning to honor guard ceremonies from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and other conflicts.

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ICE FOIA Library Still Down: FRINFORMSUM 10/12/2017

October 12, 2017

ICE FOIA Library Still Down

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement took down its FOIA library on October 3 “for review” – and has yet to reactivate the site. MuckRock’s Emma Best drew attention to the issue, which is important not only because the library houses, among other things, the agency’s FOIA reports that ICE is required to make public under the Electronic Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 1996. The scenario where any legitimate review would require the site being taken entirely offline – much less for well over a week –, is hard to fathom. Hopefully Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who sponsored the bipartisan 1996 bill, and Judiciary chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), can get to the bottom of why the agency is not complying with the 20-year-old E-FOIA amendments.

Keen Reporting Gets Broad CBP FOIA Carve-Out Removed from House Border Bill, but Bill Still Bears Watching

U.S. Representative Martha McSally (R-AZ) pulled a provision from border bill making its way through the House (H.R. 3548) -that would have exempted Customs and Border Protection (CBP) from FOIA requirements within 100 miles of the border- but only after reporting from the Tucson Sentinel shed light on a move that would have allowed the agency to “operate nearly as secret police, without any public accountability.” McSally, after the story broke, “said during a House hearing Tuesday that providing a loophole from public disclosure laws was ‘not the intent of this bill,’ and offered an amendment to clarify that ‘nothing in that section of this act will allowing waiving of FOIA responsibilities.’” Her amendment to remove the carve-out was unanimously approved in committee during a markup session the day after the Sentinel’s initial report.

No explanation was provided about the carve-out’s initial inclusion in the bill.

Interior Department Brainstorms Ways to Weaken FOIA – Among Other Bad Ideas

Notes from a closed Interior Department meeting hosted by the Bureau of Land Management on September 21 and attended by local government officials show a wide-ranging effort to weaken environmental laws – and the agency’s compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. The notes were provided to The Washington Post by a group that obtained the call-in information but was not on the invitation list. According to the Post, “They talked about working around environmental analyses that determine whether infrastructure projects harm ecosystems, about stripping conservation groups of the power to sue the BLM if it wrongly approves a project and about limiting the number of federal Freedom of Information Act requests that allow the public to scrutinize how decisions were made.” Any effort to restrict the public’s ability to file FOIA requests – or to slow the processing of submitted FOIA requests to achieve the same effect – bears watching.

FOIA Sheds Light on Bleak Moral Aboard USS Shiloh Under Capt. Aycock

Command climate surveys aboard the USS Shiloh – which made news this summer when one sailor, who was presumed lost at sea but was later found in the ship’s engine room in an effort to hide from his the rest of the crew – that were obtained by a Navy Times FOIA request show a vessel where the sailors did “not trust the CO,” Capt. Adam M. Aycock. One comment, capturing the sense of dread aboard the vessel, called the Shiloh a “floating prison.” Taken together, the anonymous comments show an atmosphere of inefficiency and fear of Aycock, of whom many said “minor on-the-job mistakes often led to time in the brig, where they would be fed only bread and water.”

Navy officials were aware of issues with Aycock’s command after the first survey taken two months into his 26-month rotation aboard the Shiloh. Aycock was not fired, and recently completed his command at the end of August.

A B28RI nuclear bomb recovered eight days after the January 1966 midair collision between a B-52 bomber and KC-135 over Palomares, Spain.

Palomares Veterans Want Documents to Help Receive Disability Benefits

Airmen who participated in the 1966 Palomares clean-up – initiated after a B-52 bomber crashed into a KC-135 refueling tanker midair over the coastal village of Palomares, Spain, causing one of the nuclear weapons on board to go missing and coating the Spanish countryside in radioactive dust – have filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Defense Department for the release of information that would help them secure disability benefits related to the incident. Specifically, “The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, alleges that an untold number of the airmen involved in the Palomares cleanup have been denied disability benefits because the Defense Department has refused to turn over medical records and other data that would show the extent of their radiation exposure.”

Dr. William Burr, the curator of the National Security Archive’s Nuclear Vault, has an excellent blog on the Palomares and Thule clean-ups here.

FBI Works with Hollywood to Encourage Public Cooperation with Agency, Downplay Surveillance Work

Buzzfeed’s Ariane Lange and Jason Leopold have a very interesting long read on the FBI’s working relationship with Hollywood, and how the Bureau’s Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit works with filmmakers to portray the agency in the most flattering light. The Bureau takes the job seriously, noting, “Most people form their opinion of the FBI from pop culture, not a two-minute news story.” Lange and Leopold drew from hundreds of pages of documents obtained in response to a FOIA lawsuit for their report. The reasons for the Bureau’s interest in working with Hollywood are made clear in one FBI slide, which shows that, “In any given week, Nielsen data indicates that FBI-themed dramas or documentaries reach 100,000,000+ people in the United States.” Another document makes clear the effort is a key part of the FBI’s mission and help to “encourage public cooperation with the FBI.”

According to the Bureau, “the ideal onscreen FBI character is approachable, polite, and not conducting surveillance.”

DOJ Appears to Investigate Admissions Practices at Harvard

A FOIA denial from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent that was to American Oversight and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law appears to confirm that the agency is investigating admissions practices at Harvard. The request, made for records concerning admissions investigations at Harvard and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was submitted in August on the heels of “reports that DOJ would be launching an investigation related to allegations of discrimination against Asian-American students.” The DOJ said there were no documents concerning UNC Chapel Hill, leading requesters to believe there is an active investigation into Harvard.

Top-Secret CIA Memo Shows US Officials Thought Che Guevara’s Death A Crucial Victory

The National Security Archive’s Cuba Project director, Peter Kornbluh, recently authored a must-read article for The Nation Magazine on the 50th anniversary of Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia. Kornbluh highlights a top-secret CIA memo, prepared for LBJ five days after Che’s death, showing that US officials considered his execution a crucial victory—but they were mistaken in believing Che’s ideas could be buried along with his body. The memo “confirmed that Guevara had not died from ‘battle wounds’ during a clash with the Bolivian army, as the press had reported from Bolivia, but rather had been executed ‘at 1315 hours…with a burst of fire from an M-2 automatic rifle.’” The article can be read here.

TBT Pick – The Death of Che Guevara, Declassified

This week’s #TBT pick is the National Security Archive fifth posting – dating from 1997 – on the thirtieth anniversary of Che Guevara’s death. The posting features key CIA, State Department, and Pentagon documents on the killing, but the documents “provide only a partial picture of U.S. intelligence and military assessments, reports and extensive operations to track and ‘destroy’ Che Guevara’s guerrillas in Bolivia; thousands of CIA and military records on Guevara remain classified.”

A bonus TBT pick for those interested – a 2007 posting by Kornbluh on the auctioning off of Guevara’s hair, among other macabre memorabilia.)

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