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FOIA Sheds Light on Hundreds of Trump Administration Hires, and Much More: FRINFORMSUM 3/9/2017

March 9, 2017

ProPublica Uses FOIA to Win List of 100s of Trump Hires       

FOIA requests from ProPublica have, along with a list of names provided by the Office of Personnel Management, won the release of more than 400 names of Trump administration hires that have been installed across the government, “providing the most complete accounting so far of who Trump has brought into the federal government.” The list of “beachhead team” members, none of which require Senate confirmation, includes lobbyists, Breitbart contributors, and a recent high school graduate. A ProPublica analysis notes that the beachhead teams likely have “considerable influence in the absence of high-level political appointees.”

A searchable list of the hires by agency can be found here.

John Moss

John Moss’s Legacy Best Weapon Against Disinformation

“Now, in the early stages of an administration that regularly deploys falsehoods and unsupported claims, John Moss…may just be the most important Trump-slayer you’ve never heard of.” Mary Finn has an excellent read on John Moss’s work to pass the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, arguing that the law may be the public’s “most effective weapon in getting truthful information from the Trump administration.” Moss said in a 1956 interview, “The present trend toward government secrecy could end in a dictatorship. The more information there is made available, the greater will be the nation’s security.”

Nate Jones has more on Moss, as well as a review of the biography “People’s Warrior: John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumers Rights” by Michael R. Lemov, here.

NSA Arguments Against Successful FOIA Requester turn FOIA on its Head

The National Security Agency is arguing in court that Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold’s successful track record suing agencies who wrongfully withhold records under the FOIA is a valid reason to stonewall his FOIA request. The NSA conflates Leopold’s litigation track record (he’s brought more FOIA lawsuits against the government than any other news outlet besides the New York Times) with the agency’s own backlog, and turns the reason behind Leopold’s FOIA lawsuits on its head, saying Leopold wants “to jump to the front of the queue, ahead of requesters who have chosen not to litigate, many of whom almost certainly lack the necessary financial resources.”

The truth, as C.J. Ciaramella points out, “Leopold and the handful of other high-volume requesters and litigators are only outliers because of their persistence in fighting back against agencies that flout the spirit and, quite often, the letter of federal record law.”

The content of Leopold’s FOIA is likely relevant – his initial request sought three-years’ worth of NSA Inspector General reports and the NSA’s semi-annual reports to Congress. Before going to court the agency said it had a whopping 22,218 pages of documents covering the last three years alone (154 IG investigations and 137 reports, with about 500 pages of semi-annual reports).

Leopold has a Twitter thread on the suit that anyone interested in this obfuscation should read in its entirety.

DOJ Makes Bad Agency Appeal Arguments in Court – Again

Justice Department trial attorney Alice Shih Lacour defended the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision not to consider an appeal timely – even though it was in the agency’s possession within the appeal timeline – in court on the grounds that, while the agency had received the appeal through FOIAonline in time, it had not been logged into the agency’s system by a staff member until after the appeal deadline. Harry Hammitt of Access Reports notes that in Competitive Enterprise Institute v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Civil Action No. 15-215 (RMC), U.S. District Court judge for the DC Circuit Rosemary Collyer – while upholding the adequacy of the agency’s search – found that the agency “clearly received the Institute’s appeal” on the day it was submitted – not logged into the system – and failed to respond in a timely basis. If the DOJ stopped upholding bad agency FOIA practice, requesters wouldn’t be forced to sue for the documents they are entitled and agencies would feel more pressure to follow the law.

PCLOB Down to One Part-Time Voting Member

Emails won through a FOIA request by The Intercept show that the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) is down to a single voting member – meaning it can’t form the statutory quorum necessary for its most vital functions. PCLOB, an independent agency charged with ensuring that the government’s terrorism efforts don’t infringe on privacy and civil liberties, is meant to have five members but is now comprised of only one part-time board member. This means, as Jenna McLaughlin reports, the agency “‘may not initiate new advice or oversight projects’ or offer advice to the intelligence community.” PCLOB additionally cannot “submit to Congress either its semi-annual reports, which detail the conclusions of its investigations, or its plans for declassifying information it has uncovered. The board can’t hold public meetings, which have offered the chance for public input in the past, or give formal recommendations to the intelligence community.” The sole member may continue ongoing investigations, testify before Congress, and give advice to intelligence agencies “without purporting to speak for PCLOB as an agency or board.”

For more on the challenges PCLOB has faced over the years, go here, here, and here.

California Lawmakers Seek Info on Immigration with FOIA

Two California lawmakers – Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon – filed a FOIA request with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for more information on immigration activities. The lawmakers specifically sought information on “the federal government’s policy when it comes to ‘sensitive’ areas such as churches, schools and hospitals.” Last month federal officials detained hundreds of people after Trump pledged a “crackdown” on illegal immigration.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that government officials’ private devices and personal email are subject to public records requests when officials use them to conduct government business. The unanimous opinion found, “The whole purpose of CPRA is to ensure transparency in government activities. If public officials could evade the law simply by clicking into a different email account, or communicating through a personal device, sensitive information could routinely evade public scrutiny.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation lauded the opinion, saying the “decision will have wide-ranging impact on how public records are treated throughout the state, whether that’s elected officials communicating with lobbyists through Twitter direct messages or law enforcement officers exchanging controversial text messages on their personal smartphones.”

FOIA Shows H.R. McMaster Reprimanded for Handling of Sexual Assault Case

A FOIA request to the Army shows that national security advisor H.R. McMaster was rebuked in 2015 for his handling of a sexual assault case involving two junior officers. According to an Army Inspector General report, “McMaster violated Army regulations by permitting the two lieutenants to attend the service’s elite Ranger School even though they were under criminal investigation.” McMaster chose to allow the officers to attend Ranger School while under investigation contrary to Army regulations because, he told investigators, he “did not want to interfere with the two lieutenants’ military training.” A special waiver from the Army’s deputy chief of staff at the Pentagon would also have allowed the lieutenants’ attendance; McMaster informed investigators he was unaware of the waiver requirement.

Gen. Daniel Allyn, the Army’s vice chief of staff, told McMaster in a “memorandum of concern” obtained through FOIA, “I am disappointed with your actions. As a senior leader in the United States Army, you are expected and required to understand and comply with all laws and regulations.” The memo does not appear in McMaster’s personal file.

Sunshine Week Around the Corner

Have you reserved your space for the U.S. National Archives Sunshine Week event on Monday March 13? On Monday the National Security Archive’s director Tom Blanton will join Ralph Nader, Dean of the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism Lucy Dalglish, and Tom Susman of the American Bar Association at the U.S. National Archives for a panel on FOIA After 50. Space is limited for the event, which will be held in NARA’s McGowan theater, so please register here by Friday, March 10.

Indonesia Declassified

Steve Aftergood reports “The National Declassification Center has completed declassification review of more than half of the classified files from the U.S. Embassy in Djakarta, Indonesia from the turbulent years of 1963-1966. The remainder of the task is expected to be completed by this summer.” The declassification of this set was “prioritized in response to public comments.”

The National Security Archive, whose Indonesia/East Timor documentation project that has sought to identify and seek release of thousands of secret U.S. documents concerning U.S. policy toward Indonesia and East Timor from 1965-1999, is happy to see the “indexing on demand” at the NDC produce such good results, and looks forward to more researcher-driven declassification.

How did the FBI Discuss Russia’s Cyber Intrusions in the Late 90s?

A new FOIA release from the FBI to the National Security Archive reveals more information on “Moonlight Maze,” the investigation into sophisticated cyber attacks on the Pentagon’s computer system – as well as computer systems for NASA, the Energy Department, and prestigious private institutions – in the late 1990s that were traced back to Moscow.

The Secret FBI memo is a less-redacted (though still quite redacted) version of a memo released in 2012, and contains new information on the bureau’s discussion of possible responses to the computer intrusions. According to the document, “the attendees also agreed that the NIPC should coordinate the development of a passive ‘honeypot(s)’ at Army and/or Navy victim sites that may assist in providing information about the intruder.” The group also discussed the feasibility of creating a second passive “honeypot(s)” containing a “beacon” file, which would plant a source code in a file that would feed information back to investigators once opened.

This document is one of 10 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, March 8.

TBT pick – Saddam’s Iron Grip

This week’s #tbt pick is a 2005 posting on “Saddam’s Iron Grip” – featuring a series of declassified U.S. intelligence documents and other U.S. agency reports on Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses. The posting contains a number of documents produced by U.S. agencies from 1975 through 2005 concerning the Iraqi regime’s policies and activities directed at maintaining itself in power and eliminating or neutralizing opposition to the regime.

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Happy FOIA-ing!


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