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NARA to Host Forum Discussing NDC Prioritization Practices and Declassification Progress, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 4/9/2015

April 9, 2015
"Study the past" Or " Study the unclassified past"?  Statue on North West of the National Archives.

“Study the past” Or “
Study the unclassified past”? Statue on northwest side of the National Archives.

Last week the Foundation for the National Archives launched an eyebrow raising promotion to celebrate National Poetry Month: selecting archival documents, censoring them, and calling it “redaction poetry.” The promotion understandably ruffled some feathers considering the vast volumes of information held by NARA that remain withheld from public view, or improperly censored by the Archives’ National Declassification Center. National Security Archive FOIA Project Director Nate Jones says declassification poetry might serve a purpose…. as long as it brings attention to the unacceptable problem of overclassification at the U.S. National Archives.

To its credit, this week (Friday April 10 at 10:00 AM) NARA is hosting a forum including the Archivist of the United States, the Director of the National Declassification Center, and other experts (including the NS Archive’s Nate Jones and William Burr) to discuss “NDC prioritization practices and ongoing declassification progress.”  Hopefully this forum will yield tangible reforms to NARA’s declassification process. The forum is open to the public so please take advantage and attend — it’s important to make your thoughts on these issues known to NARA.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is renewing efforts to access a national license plate tracking system just a year after scrapping its initial plan to build a similar system to catch fugitive illegal immigrants. Last year’s efforts were terminated after the Washington Post reported the program could “contain more than 1 billion records and could be shared with other law enforcement agencies, raising concerns that the movements of ordinary citizens who are under no criminal suspicion could be scrutinized.” The national license plate tracking plan was recently reintroduced, however, after the DHS completed a privacy impact assessment and determined not to build its own database or add data to an existing database. “Instead, it is seeking bids from companies that already gather the data to say how much they would charge to grant access to law enforcement officers”.

DHS recently told Congress in a written response to a Congressional query that it is “working on increasing its human intelligence-gathering capabilities at home and anticipates increasing its field collector/reporter personnel by 50 percent, from 19 to approximately 30, during the coming year.” The information comes after Rep. Paul C. Broun (R-GA) asked if the agency had enough HUMINT capabilities domestically and overseas “to counter the threats posed by state and non-state actors alike?”

New details are emerging about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s harvesting of Americans’ overseas calls (just a reminder, the DEA has also “initiated a massive national license plate reader program” that connects DEA license plate readers with local law enforcement agencies’ own plate readers around the country).  It was reported in January that the DEA maintained a database of Americans’ outbound overseas call records, even if the callers were not involved in any criminal activity, for over a decade. New reports show the program lasted two decades and amassed billions of Americans’ calls – “virtually all” overseas calls – to as many as 116 other countries. The program wasn’t suspended until 2013.

Building a Bridge

Building a Bridge

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the federal FOIA ombuds, just released its FY2014 report, “Building a Bridge between FOIA Requesters and Federal Agencies”. OGIS notes that its two key accomplishments for FY2014 were “establishing a new team to review agency Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policies, procedures, and compliance, and establishing a new FOIA Advisory Committee”. The report highlights OGIS’ FOIA agency assessment program—including its report on NARA’s Special Access and FOIA program – as projects to keep an eye on.

The State Department claimed in a recent U.S. District Court filing that the agency is facing a surge in FOIA lawsuits, thanks to both processing delays and the Hillary Clinton email scandal. The filing noted “a 60% jump in such suits in the last fiscal year and are on pace for a 93% increase this year”. At the time of the filing there were 73 FOIA lawsuits pending against the State Department, compared to 29 in the six previous months. The State Department employs about 100 people to conduct-line-by-line reviews of documents found responsive to FOIA requests, “along with several dozen more staffers to assign the requests, handle litigation matters and work on closing out long-pending cases.”

Common supplements containing dangerous chemical studied, but not publicized, by the FDA. Photo: The New York Times.

Common supplements containing dangerous chemical studied, but not publicized, by the FDA. Photo: The New York Times.

A new private study led by Harvard’s Dr. Pieter A. Cohen warns of the dangers of a chemical found in common weight loss and workout supplements that were studied and documented – but not made public – by the FDA. The chemical, BMPEA, is “nearly identical to amphetamine” and has already been yanked off the shelves in Canada for the health risks it poses. The FDA found nine supplements available in the U.S. contained the chemical but failed to release the names of the supplements. Health experts say such inaction is symptomatic of a larger problem within the FDA, “The agency is not effectively policing the $33 billion-a-year supplements industry in part because top agency regulators themselves come from the industry and have conflicts of interest.”

The Obama administration is considering creating “fusion cells” comprised of officers from the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department and the intelligence community to better address overseas hostage situations. The proposal is one of several options the administration is reviewing to improve response to hostage crises, which has been criticized as bewildering and disjointed.

The FBI is requiring agents to pass a fitness test for the first time in 16 years. The change is a response to concerns that stress put on agents after 9/11 have negatively impacted agents’ performance “and given them less time for fitness.” Agents have until October to take the test, which is “not nearly” as grueling as “for military commandos or hostage rescue-team members.”

Once again the Defense Department has denied an archival document whose substance can be found in the State Department’s historical series Foreign Relations of the United States. The role played by the National Archives in this episode raises troubling questions about the relationship between the National Declassification Center and the agencies in the archival declassification process. As Archivist William Burr notes, “This is regrettable because such decisions run against the grain of the worthy NARA staffers who are trying to make a complex and out-of-date declassification system work.”

Plane "probably being used for drug runs into the U.S."

Plane “probably being used for drug runs into the U.S.”

In 1996 San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published an explosive three-part series, “The Dark Alliance”, on the connection between the genesis of the crack cocaine epidemic in California and across the U.S., to the contras, the CIA-run and Reagan-backed guerrilla army operating out of Nicaragua. A recent Unredacted blog highlights the Archive’s 1998 posting of a collection of declassified documents obtained through the FOIA concerning the meat of Webb’s reporting: that there was official U.S. knowledge of, and collusion with, known drug traffickers connected to the contras.

The National Security Archive and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum recently published the proceedings, documents and rapporteur’s report from the critical oral history conference that Foreign Policy magazine called “an unprecedented 2014 gathering of former Rwandan officials and international policymakers who managed the response to the world’s worst mass murder since the Holocaust.” The new documentation draws attention to flaws in international decision-making that continue to hamper the effective prevention of and response to mass atrocity today.

This week’s #tbt pick is chosen with the 21st anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in mind, and is the January 11, 1994, cable from the UN commander of peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, to his supervisors in New York, now known as the “genocide fax.” In reply to the fax, UN officials rejected Dallaire’s request for authority to raid suspected arms caches, and instructed him instead to consult with government leaders tied to the Interahamwe, a pro-regime militia group. It was one of several turning points when the United Nations, backed by the United States and other powers, failed to take action that might have prevented the genocide.



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