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Australia Fears FOI Release would “Educate…Potentially Illegal Immigrants”: FRINFORMSUM 4/6/2017

April 6, 2017

Australia Fears FOI Release would “Educate…Potentially Illegal Immigrants”

An Australian FOI request and subsequent court case has won the release of documents on “Australia’s asylum seeker turnback missions.” The program began in December 2013 and has received widespread criticism for its opacity and “lack of proper and comprehensive screening procedures [that] denies asylum seekers their basic right to seek safety, and risks their return to danger and persecution.”

An appeals panel ruling upheld the withholding of some of the requested documents, agreeing with the government that their release would damage national security (by, among other things, educating “potentially illegal immigrants”) and international relations. The released documents, which consist of “internal requests, cables, briefing papers and emails,” nonetheless do shed light on how Australia began to implement the controversial policy and some of the perceived risks.

Australian journalist Paul Farrell requested the documents in 2014 and has shared them with the Guardian.

FOIA Searches

The FOIA Advisory Committee’s next meeting will take place on April 20 at 10 AM at the National Archive’s McGowan Theater (postings on the most recent meetings can be found here and here). A representative from the Justice Department will be presenting on using e-discovery software for FOIA searches. E-discovery programs are the most efficient and cost-effective tools for conducting FOIA searches, but are expensive and under-utilized.

The National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight recently published the results and analysis of a joint-survey for both FOIA processors and requesters on how agencies conduct FOIA searches. Almost none of the 57 respondents stated that search procedures are working perfectly, meaning that every single FOIA shop would be smart to reevaluate their search procedures. Responses also indicate that agencies must invest in organizational FOIA processing software that can streamline the process better. Some agencies and agency components have access to state of the art e-discovery tools to search their records for the requested documents (though as was pointed out in the January 2017 FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting, some agencies only use these efficient tools after being sued); other agencies do not even search records electronically at all. Much of the poor search situation FOIA shops find themselves in today is due to the fact that their agencies bought software that “does not play well” with FOIA. FOIA professionals must make this known and advocate for future software purchases that make their jobs (and complying with the law!) easier.

OGIS Public Meeting

The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) will host its first public meeting at 9 AM, also on April 20 and in NARA’s McGowan Theater. The meeting is required by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 and will allow the public a chance to ask questions and present oral or written statements. Register here.

Troop Exposure to Toxic Substances

Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced a bill in the Senate that would require the Defense Department to declassify documents on “incidents in which members of the Armed Forces were exposed to toxic substances.” The incidents on which declassification would be required would be events in which “not fewer than 100 members of the Armed Forces were exposed to a toxic substance that resulted in at least one case of a disability that a member of the medical profession has determined to be associated with that toxic substance.”

Steve Aftergood notes that the bill’s criteria for documents that would be exempt from disclosure – “if the Secretary [of Defense] determines that declassification of those documents would materially and immediately threaten the security of the United States” – is considerably narrower than the FOIA exemption covering damage to national security. Aftergood also notes that the bill does not provide any new funding for the declassification efforts, meaning it would be done “at the expense of current declassification programs.”

The Last Superpower Summits at the Elliott School

Join the National Security Archive’s Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton next Tuesday, April 11, at GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs to discuss their book, “The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush-Conversations that Ended the Cold War,” which publishes for the first time in print virtually every word the American and Soviet leaders said to each other in their historic summits from 1985 to 1991.

The event takes place at noon and is sponsored by the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. RSVP here.

“Will Not Be Competitive” – Secret CIA Assessment of Chinese Nuclear Technology 

A highly-redacted CIA Special Intelligence Report on Chinese nuclear research analyzes the 1994 discovery that a Galaxy-II computer at the Beijing National Meteorological Center was employed for nuclear-weapons-related work.

Many of the findings remain secret, but the document shows the CIA determined that the Galaxy-II’s “performance falls short of current generation Western supercomputers…The slow production schedule of the Galaxy-III assures that, even if it is finished on time, it will be eclipsed by Western advanced workstations and will not be competitive with future US or Japanese supercomputers.”

This document is one of 11 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, April 5.

TBT Pick – Israel Crosses the Threshold

Today’s #TBT pick is a 2006 posting by Avner Cohen on the Nixon administration and Israeli nuclear weapons, “Israel Crosses the Threshold.” The posting includes 30 never-before-seen declassified documents detailing the “existence of a highly secret policy debate, during the first year of the Nixon administration, over the Israeli nuclear weapons program.” Among the posting’s key findings are:

  • 1969 was a turning point in the U.S.-Israeli nuclear relationship. Israel already had a nuclear device by 1967, but it was not until 1968-1969 that U.S. officials concluded that an Israeli bomb was about to become a physical and political reality. U.S. government officials believed that Israel was reaching a state “whereby all the components for a weapon are at hand, awaiting only final assembly and testing.”
  • In the first months of the Nixon administration, senior officials such as Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird believed it was important that Washington try to check Israeli nuclear progress for the sake of stability in the Middle East.
  • On October 7, 1969 Ambassador Rabin formally provided his belated answers to the US questions: Israel will not become a nuclear power; Israel will decide on the NPT after its election in November; Israel will not deploy strategic missiles until 1972.

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Happy FOIA-ing!

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