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Tom Blanton’s ISOO 40th Anniversary Keynote Speech

January 15, 2019

Our director Tom Blanton recently gave the keynote speech at the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) 40th anniversary event. ISOO, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is charged with standardizing classification and ensuring that information is properly shared.

Blanton, whose speech begins at the 21-minute mark, discussed the origins of ISOO, praised former Director Steve Garfinkel’s ability to push through bulk declassification, and spelled out what NARA needs to do to bring its declassification programs into the twenty-first century.

The whole video is available here:

FOIA Shows How Congressional Diversity Helps Underrepresented Groups, OPEN Data Act Poised to Become Law, and More: FRINFORMSUM 1/11/2018

January 10, 2019

FOIA Shows Benefits of Diversity in Congress

A Washington Post analysis found that legislators from underrepresented groups “disproportionately advocate for these communities.” For example, “Legislators who are women, minorities and/or veterans advocate more actively for citizens from their respective groups. In fact, they’re about six to nine percentage points more likely to contact agencies on behalf of constituents with whom they share a background, compared to their non-veteran, male or white fellow legislators.” The Post’s Kenneth Lowande, Melinda Ritchie, and Erinn Lauterbach made this discovery when they sent 73 Freedom of Information Act requests to various agencies to “to study whether legislators who are members of minority groups are more likely to advocate and intervene with the bureaucracy on behalf of those communities.” Fifteen agencies responded to the FOIA requests with logs that included “correspondence from all members of Congress who served from 2005 to 2014.” The study was undertaken to see if members of underrepresented communities have reason to be optimistic with the new Congress, which is the most diverse in history.

OPEN Data Act Poised to Become Law

The OPEN Government Data Act recently passed Congress as part of the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act and awaits President Trump’s signature. As the Data Coalition notes, “The bill sets a presumption that all government information should be open data by default: machine-readable and freely-reusable.” The Act would make an agency’s failure to use open data “legally questionable,” and requires agencies to “maintain, and publish, a comprehensive data inventory of all data assets. The data inventory will help agencies and open data advocates identify key government information resources and transform them from documents and siloed databases into open data.”

Open Government Partnership Places US Under Review

Alex Howard recently published an update on the US’s lackluster involvement in the Open Government Partnership under the Trump administration. In 2017 the administration committed itself to participating in the multilateral initiative to promote open government, but the US has been placed under review for procedural violations after failing to deliver its 4th National Action Plan for Open Government. Howard notes that “if the USA fails to deliver a new NAP during this Review period (in this case, by August of this year), the OGP Steering Committee will likely vote to agree to making the country inactive.”

Trump Visitor Logs On Appeal in 2nd Circuit

The National Security Archive, together with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), is continuing the fight to open the White House visitor logs and the records of presidential visitors to Trump properties, including Mar-a-Lago. The Obama administration routinely released the logs, which are created and controlled by the Secret Service, with no harm to national security or personal privacy. The three organizations filed an appeal in the Second Circuit this week, arguing that the logs are agency records clearly subject to the FOIA, not presidential records that only become available starting five years after the president leaves office.

Read the appeal and the rest of the story here.

MuckRocks Breaks Down What’s in the Interior Department’s Proposed FOIA Changes

MuckRock and Russ Kick recently published an excellent piece breaking down what’s in the Interior Department’s proposed FOIA changes. The proposed FOIA regulation changes were published in the Federal Register the week between Christmas and New Years and the public only has until January 28th to comment. Of highest concern are DOI’s attempt to preemptively reject what it defines as “unreasonably burdensome” requests, the possibility of imposing a monthly limit to the number of either pages or requests from a single requester the agency will process, and a host of other changes that may make it more difficult to obtain fee waivers and expedited processing.

Digital National Security Archive named 2018’s Outstanding Academic Title

Choice Magazine, the publishing arm of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), recently named the Digital National Security Archive an “Outstanding Academic Title” for 2018.  The annual award goes to publications deemed especially worthy of attention from academic librarians seeking to build research collections. DNSA is the Archive’s flagship publication launched in 1989 that includes over 50 collections of declassified documents obtained through in-depth archival research and targeted requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Documentation consists of White House records, international summit meeting transcripts, top-level briefing papers, CIA assessments and covert action reports, military planning documents, State Department telegrams, and other high-level, previously classified materials resulting in what the Washington Journalism Review has called “a state-of-the-art index to history.”

Review the entire collection series here.

When Hackers Went to the Hill — Revisiting the L0pht Hearings of 1998

More than 20 years ago, in May 1998, seven hackers from the Boston-based “hacker think tank” L0pht Heavy Industries, appeared alongside Dr. Peter Neumann, a private sector expert on computer security, before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs for one of the first-ever Congressional hearings focusing specifically on cybersecurity. Two decades later, many of the problems these experts pointed to are still being confronted

The Archive’s Cyber Vault recently published the transcripts of these ground-breaking hearings along with a variety of subsequent official reports, testimony, and related materials that trace the evolution of U.S. government and public awareness of and approaches to the challenges, problems, and threats posed by the world of cyber. Taken together, the documents offer a glimpse into the scope and complexity of numerous issues that still lack meaningful answers.

TBT Pick – Revisiting the Soviet War in Afghanistan

A 2001 series from the Archive’s John Prados and Svetlana Savranskaya analyzes declassified records and the memoirs of former Soviet officials to examine Soviet policymaking, military operations, and lessons learned from the USSR’s war in Afghanistan – a bloody, ten-year conflict that pitted Soviet military forces against CIA-backed Afghan rebels. The collection also includes excerpts from an essay written by analyst Steve Galster as an introduction to the Archive’s microfiche collection, Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990, published in 1990.

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“Choice” Magazine Names “Digital National Security Archive” an Outstanding Academic Title for 2018

January 8, 2019

Choice Magazine, the publishing arm of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), has named the Digital National Security Archive an “Outstanding Academic Title” for 2018.  The annual award goes to publications deemed especially worthy of attention from academic librarians seeking to build research collections.

The Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) is the Archive’s flagship publication series featuring declassified documents obtained through in-depth archival research and targeted requests under the Freedom of Information Act. It was launched in 1989 and includes 54 collections as of the end of 2018.  It is published by the academic publisher ProQuest.

Curated by foreign policy specialists with guidance from former officials and top academic experts, the materials are indexed by librarians using extensive item-level metadata and an in-house database of over 100,000 controlled authority terms.

Documentation consists of White House records, international summit meeting transcripts, top-level briefing papers, CIA assessments and covert action reports, military planning documents, State Department telegrams, and other high-level, previously classified materials resulting in what the Washington Journalism Review has called “a state-of-the-art index to history.”

Researchers can easily browse or search and identify specific records via multiple points of access (title, date, origin, destination, keyword, etc.), and go straight to facsimiles of the individual records.  Transcriptions of difficult-to-read items are provided, as are separate versions of materials that have been excised differently by government authorities at various times.

Topics range from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the war on terrorism, Afghanistan to Iraq, Argentina to the Philippines, and presidential directives to military uses of space.

A sampling of DNSA’s most recent publications includes:

CIA Covert Operations, Part III: From Kennedy to Nixon

The third in the Archive’s unparalleled series of primary sources on the CIA’s dark side, curated by Pulitzer-nominated author John Prados, takes the story from the Bay of Pigs disaster into the most controversial secret programs of the Vietnam War such as the Operation Phoenix assassinations.


Soviet-U.S. Relations: The End of the Cold War, 1985-1991

This extraordinary collection includes declassified transcripts of every word the Soviet and American leaders actually said to each other in the historic summit meetings from Geneva 1985 through Moscow 1991, together with the previously secret preparatory and after-action reports from both the Russian and American sides.


Cuba and the U.S.: The Declassified History of Negotiations to Normalize Relations, 1959-2016

Over 1,700 high-level documents on more than 50 years of secret dialogue between the U. S. and Cuba. Based on years of research, this unique set reveals the hidden history of back-channel presidential diplomacy that led to the historic re-establishment of relations in 2015.


Targeting Iraq, Part I: Planning, Invasion, and Occupation, 1997-2004

2,000+ internal documents on one of the most significant U.S. foreign policy issues of our era.  Previously secret policy records from official U.S. and British sources encompass plans for regime change, war and occupation, and the controversy over weapons of mass destruction.

 

New Digital National Security Archive Document Collection Spotlights Soviet-U.S. Relations at Cold War’s End

December 19, 2018

The National Security Archive, working with our partners at ProQuest, is publishing a new compilation of documents on Soviet-U.S. relations at the end of the Cold War. The 1,911-document collection, Soviet-U.S. Relations: The End of the Cold War, 1985-1991, is relevant for researchers studying a range of issues, including:

  • The transformation of U.S.-USSR relations from perestroika until the dissolution of the Soviet Union;
  • The dynamics of superpower relations at the end of the Cold War;
  • And the transformation of the international system in the late 1980s.

The collection features a complete series of U.S.-Soviet summit transcripts from Geneva 1985 through Madrid 1991, between Gorbachev and U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, as well as memoranda of numerous phone calls between Bush and the Soviet leader, and Reagan and Gorbachev’s letters to each other. From early exchanges of letters between Reagan and Gorbachev after the latter came to power in March 1985 to the last phone call with Bush on December 31, 1991, these documents show the development of a productive relationship based on trust and a mutual interest in reversing the arms race, which provided a basis for spectacular achievements across the entire spectrum of foreign policy issues for both countries and even domestic reform in the USSR.

During the seven years covered in the set, U.S.-Soviet cooperation produced major advances in bilateral relations and in settling third world conflicts. In the most important area of arms control, the two countries signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, which eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapon for the first time in history. In 1990, members of NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization signed the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty reducing force levels in Europe. In July 1991, at the Moscow Summit, Bush and Gorbachev signed the START I Treaty which decreased numbers of strategic nuclear arms. Documents on negotiations of these treaties from both sides are part of this set, including very rare verbatim records of military-to-military negotiations from the Soviet side.

The end of the Cold War and the new partnership between the United States and the Soviet Union allowed the superpowers to actively engage in mediation of third world disputes, often putting pressure on their own allies in the local conflicts to resolve them peacefully. Primary sources documenting U.S.-Soviet negotiations and joint work on issues such as ending the Soviet war in Afghanistan, resolving conflicts in Southern Africa and Central America, and promoting democratic elections in Nicaragua show how far both sides were willing to go to transform the entire system of international relations and alliances.

In Europe, where the effect of the end of the Cold War was most dramatic, the set covers negotiations on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, the evolution of Gorbachev’s idea of the “common European home,” as well as Bush’s concept of “Europe whole and free,” and the interactions of both U.S. and Soviet officials with leaders of East European countries. Discussions of German unification and the related issues of the future of NATO and the Warsaw Pact constitute an important facet of the collection.

U.S. documents in this collection were obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the State Department, Defense Department, the CIA, and the Clinton and Bush presidential libraries. On the Soviet side, notes of Politburo sessions produced by official stenographers and by Gorbachev’s chief foreign policy adviser Anatoly S. Chernyaev document crucial Soviet discussions and evolving cooperative policy toward the United States. Soviet materials relating to the period covered in the set were obtained by National Security Archive staff with the cooperation of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow and from declassifications in key Russian archives.

If you don’t already have DNSA, sign up for a free trial today.

New (B)(3)s Find Way Into Farm Bill, College-Sponsored Bank Accounts Charging “Legally Dubious Fees”, and More: FRINFORMSUM 12/13/2018

December 13, 2018
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(B)(3) Exemptions Find Way Into Farm Bill 

Two proposed (B)(3) exemptions that will prevent the public from knowing information it should have access to are included in the Farm Bill. The carve-outs concern rural broadband information (which appears to benefit large telecom corporations at the cost of local smaller companies – text page 257) and an agricultural research pilot program (page 317).

FOIA’s (B)(3) exemption is an expansive and pernicious one that captures “the various nondisclosure provisions that are contained in other federal statutes.” The nondisclosure provisions are so numerous that they are a large part of the reason why the FOIA doesn’t effectively have just its nine statutory exemptions – it has closer to 250 – including one about watermelon production data.

Even if the Farm Bill exemptions are merited, which is unclear, any proposed FOIA exemption should go through the normal, established process and be thoroughly vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

College-Sponsored Bank Accounts Charging “Legally Dubious Fees”

College students that take advantage of school-sponsored bank accounts pay over three times as much in fees, this according to a 2018 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report released through the FOIA. The report, which was initially prepared by the CFPB and shared with the Department of Education, surveyed nearly 600 schools and found that students at universities that enter into marketing agreements with financial institutions and who take part in the paid promotion accounts are charged “legally dubious fees.” The schools that take part in the financial marketing receive payments from banks based on the number of students that enroll in the accounts, raising concerns about conflict of interest.

The 2018 report echoes finding of an earlier 2016 CFBP report, which found “many schools are more focused on their bottom line than their students’ well-being when they agree to sponsor financial accounts,” and comes at a time when the student loan ombudsman office at the CFBP has been vacant for four months. The most recent ombudsman, Seth Frotman, blamed the CFPB for burying the 2016 findings in his resignation letter, stating that “when new evidence came to light showing that the nation’s largest banks were ripping off students on campuses across the country by saddling them with legally dubious fees, Bureau leadership suppressed the publication of a report prepared by Bureau staff.”

Zinke Loyalist and Political Appointee to Oversee Interior FOIA Shop

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke recently deviated from norms and installed a political appointee to head the agency’s FOIA office, a position that is normally lead by career staff to avoid the appearance of politicization of the release of information. The new chief FOIA officer is Daniel Jorjani, who has previously acted as an adviser to Charles and David Koch. The move comes on the heels of the Justice Department launching an investigation into Zinke and at a time when the FOIA office is receiving an influx of requests.

Zinke’s order appointing Jorjani implied he believes Jorjani will streamline the office, stating, “It is clear that some aspects of the FOIA program’s decentralized structure hinder efficient and effective management of operations in the current environment.”

A document released through FOIA earlier this year painted Jorjani as a Zinke loyalist, telling a staffer that “At the end of the day, our job is to protect the Secretary.”

New Pre-Publication Review Policy on the Way

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence told Steve Aftergood in response to his FOIA request that a new, IC-wide pre-publication review policy is on the way. Two years ago the House Intelligence Committee directed the ODNI “ to improve the government’s controversial policy on reviewing books, articles and speeches by current and former intelligence employees prior to their publication, so as to make the process more uniform, timely and fair.” Until the ODNI launches the new policy, current and former employees must comply with the existing policy dating from 2014.

CIA Vowed To “Continue to Fight to Abolish FOIA”

Muckrock recently highlighted a jarring discussion among CIA employees during a 1984 team building exercise that included a frank assessment of the agency’s stance on FOIA – that their position should be to “continue to fight to abolish” the transparency law. As JPat Brown notes, “While the CIA’s opposition to FOIA has been extensively documented throughout this project, it’s rare to see the matter discussed in such explicit terms. The fact that it was a single line in a document that had only been declassified in 2010, and even then only made public last year as a result of our three year lawsuit, is a testament to the Agency’s commitment to keeping its history hidden.”

Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson. Photo taken at Acheson’s office in 1950, from collection of Harry S. Truman Library, accession number 85-63.

NATO’s Original Purpose: Double Containment of the Soviet Union and “Resurgent” Germany

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sent an illuminating memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson in Fall 1966 that explained the political reasons for keeping U.S. troops in Europe: to maintain NATO’s “cohesion,” to prevent Soviet “political blackmail,” to deter “any bilateral Soviet-FRG [Federal Republic of Germany] security agreement,” and to discourage “the revival of German militarism,” according to a collection of previously classified documents recently published by the Archive.

Against the current backdrop of discussions at the top levels of the U.S. government over security guarantees in Europe, McNamara’s memo and a selection of other declassified U.S. documentation provide historical context for decades of U.S. policy toward Europe and more specifically the functions of NATO and the relationship between Germany and European security.

Reagan, Gorbachev and Bush at Governors Island

The U.S. and NATO allies worried about losing control of the public narrative of the Cold War in December 1988 after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s offer of an arms race in reverse in his famous United Nations speech, according to declassified documents published this week by the National Security Archive. The documents were published in time to mark the 30th anniversary of Gorbachev’s groundbreaking U.N. speech and describe a number of interesting items, including the U.S. debrief to allies about the Soviet leader’s subsequent short summit with President Ronald Reagan and President-elect George H.W. Bush at Governors Island in New York harbor, and a discussion with the Pakistani ambassador that shows deep suspicion on the part of a senior State Department official about Soviet intentions and reveals that the U.S. had no strategy for Afghanistan beyond lubricating the Soviet withdrawal.

The new documents add to the extensive body of evidence previously published by the Archive, both on the Web in 2008 and in the award-winning book, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush: Conversations that Ended the Cold War (CEU Press, 2016).

For Fun – Can You Outsmart the NSA?

Try to solve puzzles from the spy agency’s in-house magazine CRYPTOLOG, a large collection of which we recently posted and indexed in our Cyber Vault. Search keyword “Puzzle” to try 100+ brainteasers, then “Solution” or “Answer.”

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FOIAonline Still Broken Six Months After Disastrous Redesign: FRINFORMSUM 12/6/2018

December 6, 2018

FOIAonline Still Broken Six Months After Disastrous Redesign

Six months ago the would-be government-wide FOIA portal, FOIAonline, was redesigned and the site lost much of its functionality as a result. (The Reporters Committee’s Adam Marshall has a good run-down of all the things wrong with the site here.) In July FOIAonline posted a notice on its homepage saying the setback would only be short-term, claiming that “Much of the information from the previous version of FOIAonline is not yet in 3.0. This process is expected to take several weeks to complete. We appreciate your patience as we continue to work through the most recent cases to the oldest.”

Several weeks turned into six months and there are still no updates about when we can expect the website, which the Environmental Protection Agency provides the IT for, to return to its previous usability.

Security Oversight Office Celebrates 40th Anniversary and Asks How to Fix Declassification

The Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees the government-wide security classification system, celebrated its 40th anniversary today and asked how to fix declassification at an event in DC. The National Security Archive’s Director Tom Blanton gave the keynote address, which was followed by a panel discussion with four former ISOO directors as they shared their perspective on how the agency should evolve as the government’s work becomes increasingly digital. An idea embraced by Blanton and several others is to empower the National Declassification Center to take control of historic documents that are 25-years-old or older, rather than letting agencies drag their feet and conducting costly reviews of the documents.

Metro Was Willing to Give Special Treatment to “Unite the Right” Rally Organizer

A public records request revealed that the Washington D.C. area- transit authority, Metro, “was willing to work with the organizer of a white supremacist rally in Washington this summer to provide special accommodations for his group.” The emails contradict Metro’s earlier position that it did not try to facilitate travel for the hate group.

This summer Jason Kessler, who helped organize the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, asked for special treatment to travel from Virginia to the capital for a “Unite the Right 2” event.  Kessler said he “would like to coordinate with your department for the safety of my demonstrators and the general public. We are anticipating a potential for violence from left-wing Antifa groups and are concerned about the public transit process being vulnerable points for an ambush.” A Metro employee said “Absolutely…please feel free to call me at your convenience.”

News leaked that Metro could provide a special train for Kessler and his group, and Metro faced outrage from elected officials, the public, and Metro’s labor union. Metro then shifted its posture and said that the idea of special accommodations for rally-goers was “a joint law enforcement operation with a unified command” and that the D.C. metropolitan police were the lead agency – an account the police denied.

Metro initially denied the records request, citing the security of Metro operations and the safety of customers and employees, but an appeal won the release of the information.

Political Aide at VA Shut Down Top Diversity Officer After Charlottesville

Department of Veterans Affairs’ emails obtained through FOIA by American Oversight and shared with the Washington Post show that a top White House appointee “sought to silence the agency’s chief diversity officer, who — in the aftermath of last year’s racially charged violence in Charlottesville — pushed for a forceful condemnation that was at odds with President Trump’s response.” The White House appointee, John Ullyot, initially told the diversity specialist, Georgia Coffey, to drop the idea of sending a statement to agency employees and the public strongly condemning the white supremacist rally. (Unconfirmed reports allege Ullyot was following a White House directive not to draw attention to the events or President Trump’s “all sides” comment.) Ullyot said an email was unnecessary because the VA secretary had already made a similar statement earlier in the week – although he also said “we should all feel free to share our own personal views on the recent events.” Coffey eventually decided to post the comments, signed in her own name, to the diversity office website. VA officials removed the post and reprimanded her, and she retired shortly after.

Cyber Brief: Cryptolog

Five years ago, the National Security Agency released 136 issues of its internal Cryptolog periodical spanning 1974 through 1997. The collection offers a look into the some of the discussions being held within one of America’s most secretive intelligence agencies and also serves as a vehicle for organizational reflection. Conflict between linguists and cryptanalysts over promotions and pay scales rages in the pages of Cryptolog for two years, and a four-part series on the agency’s intern program was published in 1974. The National Security Archive is now providing a complete index of all 1,504 items in the declassified collection, including but not limited to articles, interviews, and puzzles.

TBT Pick – A Quarter Century of U.S. Support for East Timor Occupation

This week’s #TBT pick from 2005 highlight’s the East Timor Truth Commission report’s use of declassified US documents to call for reparations resulting from the US’s support of the Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor from 1975 until 1999. The Archive provided the commission over 1,000 declassified documents to aid the effort in absence of any help from the US governments. The documents show, among other things, that nearly ten months prior to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the US Embassy in Jakarta and the State Department were paying close attention to the Indonesian military buildup and propaganda campaign. By March, 1975 the National Security Council was recommending “a policy of silence” regarding Indonesia’s intention to “incorporate Portuguese Timor by force.”

In 2001 the Archive posted newly declassified documents showing that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Gerald Ford gave the green light to Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, the beginning of a 24-year occupation in which more than 100,000 Timorese died.

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Air Force FOIA Shop Says Request Denied for “Reasons”: FRINFORMSUM 11/29/2018

November 29, 2018

The Air Force Couldn’t Have Sent a More Unprofessional, Unlawful FOIA Response Letter to a Worse Place

The Air Force has sent a shockingly informal, candid, unprofessional, and unlawful FOIA response letter to the National Security Archive. The letter blasély stated in its denial that, “There are more reasons listed for not releasing any of the information you are requesting. This is a heads up to let you know that if you wish to continue this request it will be transferred to Higher Headquarters with about the same results. The 19th AF does not believe this information should be released to the public at all. You may continue your request just let me know or you can withdraw your request.”

There are a number of problems with this response. Chief among them being that the FOIA statute, as all FOIA processors should know, requires agencies to clearly articulate what FOIA exemptions they are invoking to redact information. The added insult of this Air Force FOIA officer (or poorly-trained contractor) trying to talk the requester out of appealing the decision by suggesting it won’t be successful is unacceptable. CC@OGIS.

FOIA FACA Meeting

The FOIA Federal Advisory Council held the most recent meeting of its 2018-2020 term today, with a very interesting panel discussion with the Inspectors General from the State Department, the Intelligence Community, the National Credit Union, and the National Science Foundation. There are intriguing opportunities for oversight/enforcement collaboration between FOIA shops, the FOIA ombuds office OGIS, and the Council of the Inspectors General, and hopefully the seeds are being laid for such an end.

Chief Records Officer of the US Laurence Brewer also gave an update on records management and agency records retention schedules, and the subcommittees on records management, time/volume, and vision all presented reports on their progress. All of the materials from today’s meeting, which was live-streamed, will be posted here.

FOIA Helps Show Police Departments Inflating Rape Case Statistics

An alarming number of police departments appear to be inflating rape case statistics, implying they have solved cases when they’ve simply closed them, according to a ProPublica, Center for Investigative Reporting, and Newsy investigation. Police departments do this by abusing the “exceptional clearance” classification – a classification that is supposed to be used sparingly and only in cases when police have enough evidence to make an arrest and know who and where the suspect is but, for reasons outside their control, cannot make an arrest.

Filing over 100 public records requests with 60 police departments across the country, in conjunction with analyzing data from more than 70,000 rape cases, revealed that “many departments rely heavily on exceptional clearance, which can make it appear that they are better at solving rape cases than they actually are.”

As an example, the Baltimore County Police Department only made arrests in about 30 percent of its rape cases, but by overusing the exceptional clearance classification, touted the figure as being a 70 percent clearance rate. Baltimore isn’t alone – “About a dozen departments that provided data had twice as many exceptional clearances as arrests in 2016. To the public, this effectively made it seem as though they had solved three times the number of rapes that they actually had.”

Read the full investigation here.

Rick Perry and “The Jerky Boys of Russia”

A FOIA request has won the release of documents showing the Department of Energy’s internal reaction to realizing that Energy Secretary Rick Perry had been pranked by a Russian duo that had previously targeted U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Elton John, and others. The incident occurred last July when Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov sent an email to Perry’s aide, Stan Gerdes, posing as a staffer for Ukraine Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman by the name of Sergey Stolyarenko and requesting an interview. The email came from “someone named Dmitro Krasnenko with an email address ending in ‘ukr.net.’”

The pair talked with Secretary Perry for 20 minutes about energy issues, focusing in particular on coal; the call was released on the Russian website Pravda soon after.

The FOIA-released documents show the Energy Department’s concern at a number of procedural breakdowns even before the conversation was leaked, chief among them being: “A political appointee who received the initial request doesn’t appear to have properly vetted or flagged the call. Perry didn’t have a translator. And DOE doesn’t appear to have looped in the White House, State Department or embassies beforehand.”

Not smart.

Video of Wildfire Started By Gender Reveal Stunt Released via FOIA

A FOIA request filed by my hometown paper, the Arizona Daily Star, to the U.S. Forest Service has won the release of a video confirming the genesis of the Sawmill Fire blaze – a gunshot that sparked a blue explosion intended to be part of a Border Patrol agents gender reveal party. Border Patrol agent Dennis Dickey of Tucson fired a gun at a black box labeled “boy” filled with the explosive substance Tannerite, an explosion ensued, and the 49-second video records a male voice ordering witnesses to “start packing up!” after the fire begins to spread. The fire burned 47,000 acres and cost $8.2 million to extinguish; Dickey pleaded to a sentence of five years’ probation and was ordered “to pay restitution totaling more than $8.1 million. He agreed to make an initial $100,000 payment and monthly payments thereafter.”

Census Bureau Releases 2020 Census Question Records

The U.S. Census Bureau has posted frequently requested records pertaining to the 2020 census – thanks to Michael Ravnitzky for drawing attention to the release. The page contains information on both the citizenship question as well as information on questions regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.

In July of this year redacted  Commerce Department emails released as part of an ongoing lawsuit show that the Trump administration discussed adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census within months of Trump taking office. The 600-plus emails, which NPR has filed FOIA requests for to help peel back the redactions, contradict the administration’s earlier claims that the question was being added at the request of the Justice Department to better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The emails instead show that in May 2017 Steve Bannon, then President Trump’s strategist, tasked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with talking “to someone about the census.” A month later, Secretary Ross’ aid “pledged to press Justice Department officials to say they needed better citizenship data for law enforcement.”

The Palace of Justice burned to the ground during military efforts to retake the building from M-19 guerrillas. Eleven Supreme Court justices died in the blaze, along with dozens of others. [Photo: Revista Semana]

TBT Pick – Palace of Justice Burning

This week’s #TBT pick is chosen with the start of the Colombia Truth Commission today in mind, and is a 2009 posting analyzing the accuracy of a declassified State Department cable blaming the Colombian Army for the deaths and disappearances that resulted from the operations to retake the Palace of Justice building in November 1985. Read more from our Colombia project here.

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