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State’s FOIA Shop Faces Uncertain Future: FRINFORMSUM 6/22/2017

June 22, 2017

Drastic Cuts Coming to State’s FOIA Shop

The State Department’s FOIA shop, which is heavily reliant on Limited Non-Career Appointment (LNA) Foreign Service Officers with decades of experience in foreign policy, is poised to undergo a radical – and disruptive – shift. The National Security Archive has been contacted by sources within the department warning of draconian cuts to the FOIA office – in the form of the forced retirement of 150 of the FOIA office’s most senior and experienced LNA reviewers. The plan to replace them is unclear, but may result in the State Department contracting out much of its FOIA processing.

State’s FOIA shop is unique in that retired, part-time Foreign Service Officers do much of the heavy lifting – the benefit for FOIA requesters being that deeply knowledgeable officers are making declassification decisions in an arena that is not black and white. Contracting this out, in addition to possibly being more expensive, could result in less knowledgeable FOIA processors making these decisions, and is not guaranteed to expedite processing.

It is also another potential example in a disturbing trend of FOIA offices contracting out their FOIA processing. CACI is currently hiring a FOIA Specialist for duties that include processing, and Deloitte has a FOIA team that provides assistance with “FOIA solutions,” including FOIA responses and “process innovation.”

A key point to remember here is that contractors are prohibited from performing “inherently governmental functions.” Previously, agencies have justified to the Archive their use of contractors in FOIA shops by saying that they are meeting this requirement by not allowing contractors to make final determinations when processing FOIA requests. It’s hard to imagine, however, that if State contracts out a large portion of its FOIA shop, that it can ensure that this is not happening, or that quality control problems will not result.

Suing Trump Administration to Preserve Presidential Records  

The National Security Archive joins Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) in a lawsuit to ensure that the Trump administration preserves its presidential records – as required by law.

“Thanks to Congress, since 2014, government employees have been required to copy any private server e-mail messages about government business to official systems within 20 days,” said National Security Archive director Tom Blanton. “Reports that Trump administration officials are disregarding this requirement – either by not following private e-mail protocol or by using encrypted messaging apps that prevent any kind of preservation – raise serious concerns that presidential records are at risk.”

Get the whole story and read the complaint here.

No Real Harm from Manning Leaks, Says Redacted DOD Report

A heavily redacted final report from the Defense Department’s Information Review Task Force contradicts prosecutor’s arguments that Chelsea Manning’s leaks endangered US national security. The report, obtained by BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold in response to a 2015 FOIA lawsuit, finds “with high confidence that disclosure of the Iraq data set will have no direct personal impact on current and former U.S. leadership in Iraq.” Leopold says, “To prepare it, more than 20 federal government agencies, including the FBI, NSA, CIA, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security, conducted a line-by-line review of more than 740,000 pages of classified documents ‘known or believed compromised’ by WikiLeaks to assess the damage.”

Not So Secure Post-Snowden

A declassified August 2016 Defense Department Inspector General report, released in response to a FOIA request from The New York Times’ Charlie Savage, found “The government’s efforts to tighten access to its most sensitive surveillance and hacking data after the leaks of National Security Agency files by Edward J. Snowden fell short.” Specifically, the report found that the agency:

  • “failed to consistently lock racks of servers storing highly classified data and to secure data center machine rooms,”
  • “failed to meaningfully reduce the number of officials and contractors who were empowered to download and transfer data classified as top secret,” and
  • “did not fully implement software to monitor what those users were doing.”

If You Can Google It, Agencies Shouldn’t Glomar It

Ryan Shapiro and Jason Leopold are suing the FBI for issuing a Glomar denial (refusing to either confirm or deny the existence of records, and, by extension, refusing to search for them in the first place) in response to a FOIA request for pre-election records on President Trump. The FBI issuing a Glomar in such an instance is absurd considering, as stated in the complaint, “Mr. Trump has further diminished his privacy interest by speaking publicly about contacts he has had with the FBI. For example, in an article describing his connections with organized crime, Mr. Trump told The Washington Post that he met with FBI agents in April 1981.” The FBI has also released records in response to previous requests, some of which refer to Trump. A Google search will also reward you with a 1981 FBI memo about Trump.

Private Prisons FOIA Suit

Campaign Legal Center recently filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Justice Department for information on the agency’s decision to reverse the Obama administration plan to phase-out federal use of private prisons. The Center’s FOIA sought DOJ communications with the pro-Trump SuperPac, Rebuilding America Now; GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., which “specializes in corrections,” is a contributor to the Pac.  GEO Holdings contributed nearly a quarter of a million dollars to the Pac, with $100,000 coming the day after the Obama administration announced it would end the use of private prisons for federal inmates.

Modern War Historians Face Hurdles in Iraq, Afghanistan

The difficulties faced by the Army’s historical field staff in Iraq and Afghanistan were recently highlighted in an excellent article in The Atlantic. When computers became prevalent, the Army broadened records management responsibilities to average soldiers – failing to take into account, according to the Center for Military History’s Jerry Brooks, “that people are lazy.” In an ideal world, soldiers save documents and hand them off, along with other sources of information, “to field historians when requested. However, in addition to the two years after Spencer Williams and his team left Afghanistan a decade ago, the country hasn’t had a field historian from the Army since 2014. Historians dealing with Iraq have avoided these same gaps, but still suffer from fewer personnel in the field than in past wars. Brooks cites Vietnam, where U.S. headquarters in Saigon alone maintained a staff of more than 20 historians. Nowadays, as a result of caps on the number of troops deployed, historians oftentimes find themselves on the first flights back home.”

New Digital National Security Archive Set Publishes Thousands of Declassified Iraq War Docs

A new Digital National Security Archive collection from our Iraq project is now available through ProQuest.

The National Security Archive, working with our partners at ProQuest, is publishing a new compilation of documents on the Iraq war, one of the most consequential events in recent history—for the United States, Iraq, the Middle East, and the international community.

The 2,141-document collection of primary source documents, Targeting Iraq, Part I: Planning, Invasion, and Occupation, 1997-2004, will illuminate the path to war and its many unanticipated consequences. Information in the collection will also be useful in examining an issue of continuing concern: the politicization of intelligence to serve political ends.

Learn more about the collection here.

Iran FRUS Released after “Mind-Boggling” Delay

The State Department recently released its long-awaited “retrospective” volume of declassified U.S. government documents on the 1953 coup in Iran, including records describing planning and implementation of the covert operation.

The publication is the culmination of decades of internal debates and public controversy after a previous official collection omitted all references to the role of American and British intelligence in the ouster of Iran’s then-prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq. The volume is part of the Department’s venerable Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series.

The National Security Archive applauded the publication but the Archive’s Iran-U.S. Relations Project director termed the decades of delay in releasing the documents “mind-boggling.”

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter Receives Award from the U.S. Military History Group

The U.S. Military History Group awarded Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, with an Honorable Mention for the 2016 Captain Richard Lukaszewick Memorial Book Award. The award recognizes “outstanding” books on US military history from 1945 through 2001. Congrats to the National Security Archive’s Dr. William Burr, who co-authored the book with Miami University professor emeritus Jeffrey Kimball!

Journalists Being Killed in Mexico

Mexican columnist, investigative reporter, and author Javier Valdez Cárdenas is the sixth member of the press to be assassinated in Mexico in less than three months, and joins the black list of the estimated 125 journalists killed and 20 disappeared in Mexico since 2000. According to the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders, Mexico is the third most dangerous country for journalists in the world, after Afghanistan and Syria. Yet Mexico’s government has done little to nothing to stop the violence targeting the media.

The National Security Archive’s Mexico Impunity Project joins with our colleagues in the press and civil society in support of the right to information and free expression, and the right of journalists to write, publish, and live without fear of violent repercussion.

Read some of Valdez’s work, written two months before his death, here.

TBT Pick – Before Democracy

Today’s #TBT pick is chosen with the disturbing assault on members of the Mexican press in mind, and is a 2003 posting by the Archive’s Kate Doyle on memories of Mexican elections from 1967 through 1970. The posting includes a secret 1967 CIA intelligence report on “Mexico: The Problems of Progress.”

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Happy FOIA-ing!


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