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FOIA and Donald Trump: FRINFORMSUM 11/18/2016

November 18, 2016

Transparency and Donald Trump


Before and after an appeal filed by BuzzFeed news for records on Donald Trump.

In the nine days since Donald Trump won the presidential election reports have surfaced that he considered seeking top secret clearances for his three oldest children, and in some instances their spouses – requests that would be unprecedented if true. Trump also seems to be standing by a plan to place his children in charge of the Trump Organization’s “blind trust,” an arrangement that could be riddled with potential conflicts of interest.

The relationship is also cause for concern given previous disclosures that appear to show Trump using government contracts to enrich his children.

Documents won three months ago in response to a FOIA appeal show that during Donald Trump’s re-development of the taxpayer-owned Old Post Office building in downtown D.C. into a luxury hotel, Trump “funneled money to his children through separate companies bearing each of the children’s names, and the document indicates that those companies did not invest money. Nevertheless, their stakes could earn the children a big chunk of any profits generated from the taxpayer-owned site.” BuzzFeed further noted when the story was originally reported in August that despite the fact the building is owned by the public, many of the key documents in the deal were heavily redacted, forcing BuzzFeed to file an appeal.

Robert Hastings Jr., a George W. Bush political appointee and assistant secretary of defense for public affairs (acting) from 2008 to 2009, urged president elect Trump in a recent Washington Post article not to break with tradition and embrace transparency. In doing so, Hastings calls on Trump to “insist that the agencies he inherits comply quickly with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. To boot, he should enlist the help of the Republican-controlled Congress to support stronger language for FOIA laws.”

“Transparency luminaries” Ryan Shapiro  and Jeffrey Light are less optimistic Trump will bolster FOIA and have launched a Go Fund Me campaign, “Operation 45,” to ensure the incoming administration is transparent and accountable. The campaign, citing concerns of Trump taking “control of the sprawling national security state” and “Trump’s authoritarian aspirations and overt contempt for the Constitution,” is hoping to raise $25,000 to sue the incoming administration under FOIA.

MuckRock’s guide to public records and the Trump transition and transition team can be found here. Philip Eil also has a very good article in the Colombia Journalism Review on how to “make FOIA great again.”

If you want to know how to make the most of your FOIA requests and appeals, download the National Security Archive’s free 122-page FOIA guide, “Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone.

Changes and Resignations 

Senator Patrick Leahy, a longtime FOIA champion whose work was instrumental in the codification of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, “has chosen to be the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, rather than the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.” Senator Dianne Feinstein will take over as the ranking member for the Judiciary Committee.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper submitted his resignation this week. During a March 12, 2013, Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden asked DNI Clapper if the NSA collected any type of data on millions of Americans. Clapper said: “No, sir…Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.” In a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee that was released on July 2, 2013, Clapper apologized for his “clearly erroneous” response, saying he issued them because “he was thinking instead of a different aspect of surveillance, the internet content collection of persons NSA believes to be foreigners outside of the United States.”

scAble Archer 83 Podcast Now Available on iTunes

The International Spy Museum Podcast featuring the National Security Archive’s Nate Jones is now available on iTunes. The podcast, which discusses Jones’s new book on Able Archer 83, is hosted by Dr. Vince Houghton, historian and curator at the International Spy Museum.

“The Reagan Files” Jason Saltoun-Ebin also recently reviewed Jones’s book. His review, and Jones’s response, can be found here.

How Much Has Encryption Debate Changed Since 1997?

FBI director Louis J. Freeh testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in July 1997 that robust encryption that does not allow for timely law force access poses a “serious threat to public safety.” This testimony, which underscores how solutions for balancing privacy and public safety in cyberspace remain elusive, is one of the documents recently posted to the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault.  Freeh notes in his testimony that “Law enforcement is already beginning to encounter the harmful effects of conventional encryption in some of our most important investigations:

  • In the Aldrich Ames spy case, where Ames was told by his Soviet handlers to encrypt computer file information to be passed to them.
  • In a child pornography case, where one of the subjects used encryption in transmitting obscene and pornographic images of children over the Internet.
  • In a major drug-trafficking case, where one of the subjects of one of the court-ordered wiretaps used a telephone encryption device which frustrated the surveillance.
  • Some of the anti-Government Militia groups are now advocating the use of encryption as a means of preventing law enforcement from properly investigating them.”

Detroit Police and “Destruction of Animals”

Journalist C.J. Ciaramella has a worthwhile and troubling article in on the rise in police shootings of pets during narcotics raids, a trend that seems to emerge from the increase in dog ownership in the US in the 1970s and 1980s and increasingly aggressive police tactics to carry out the “war on drugs.” The article focuses mainly on Detroit, which has the distinction of employing two police officers who have shot and killed more than 100 dogs. Detroit Police are not alone; Ciaramella notes that police killing of family dogs is “so common that they’ve become known by the grim moniker puppycide… A Justice Department official speculated in a 2012 interview with Police magazine that the number could be as high as 10,000 a year, calling it ‘an epidemic.’… A 2012 study by the National Canine Research Council estimated that half of all intentional police shootings involved dogs.”

Ciaramella had a very informative series of Tweets on how he used public records to write the animal destruction story – and the myriad of obstacles he faced doing so. Ciaramella highlights the intense research that was part of his FOIA process, including cross-referencing lawsuits and news reports, noting that FOIA process didn’t end with the release of documents. Ciaramella’s takeaway? “Now I have to file an appeal to find out how many they’re hiding. The final lesson: Always, always appeal. They’re banking on you being lazy”



VA Charges FOIA Requester $100 for a Phone Number

The Daily Caller recently reported that some offices within the Department of Veterans Affairs were charging inordinate amounts for FOIA requests, including one eye-popping estimated fee of more than $30,000 for documents that staffers admitted were “easy to find.” A Florida VA office also “charged $100 when a requester wanted to know the hospital’s phone numbers. In another example, when an employee sought information on a boss’ selection, he was charged $568, with no explanation.”

Echoes of the 1956 Hungarian Revolt in Romania, 60 Years After

Sixty years ago, Romanian students were among the first to throw their support behind the popular uprising in neighboring Hungary, prompting a rapid crackdown by the authorities in Bucharest, Timişoara, and other locales across the country, according to Romanian and U.S. documents published today for the first time by the National Security Archive. The documents record the spread of public debates and demonstrations, which soon encompassed worker complaints about wages and other social concerns, including worries about the possible use of the Soviet Red Army to crush the opposition. They also provide details about the actions taken against the opposition by the dreaded Securitate forces, and reveal the fears and uncertainty that drove Communist Party leaders in Bucharest to suppress the protests.

#TBT pick – The Transformation of Human Rights into An International Norm

Jimmy Carter meets prominent Soviet dissident General Pyotr Grigorenko, September 20, 1978.

Jimmy Carter meets prominent Soviet dissident General Pyotr Grigorenko, September 20, 1978.

This week’s #TBT pick is a 2012 posting on previously secret U.S. documents on Soviet dissidents that, matched with reports and letters by the dissidents themselves from the Memorial Society Archives in Moscow, illuminate the landmark turning point during Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the late 1970s when U.S. policy first elevated human rights concerns. The dissidents themselves led the international movement that discredited Soviet claims that attention to such issues was “interference in internal affairs.” The documents in the posting include:

  • The highest-level memoranda to President Carter from his top advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance;
  • CIA assessments of the dissident movement and the Soviet government’s reactions,
  • and U.S. National Security Council discussions of the issue.

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Happy FOIA-ing!



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