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DOJ OIP Head Implies New FOIA Portal will be “Better than the Letter of the Law”: FRINFORMSUM 10/26/2017

October 26, 2017

DOJ OIP Head Implies New FOIA Portal will be “Better than the Letter of the Law”

The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 mandates the creation of a “consolidated online request portal that allows a member of the public to submit a request for records under subsection (a) to any agency from a single website. The portal may include any additional tools the Director of the Office of Management and Budget finds will improve the implementation of this section.”

The head of the Justice Department office that “encourages” FOIA compliance, Melanie Pustay, recently told Government Matters that her office, the Office of Information Policy (OIP), will be looking at the national FOIA portal as “an opportunity to make improvements to FOIA administration more broadly.” Pustay also agreed with the host’s assertion that OIP is looking at its portal mandate from a broader perspective than what Congress intended; indeed, that it is “better than the letter of the law.”

OIP contracted the General Services Administration’s tech team, 18f, to build the portal, and 18f has made progress on its portal publicly available on github. (OIP contracted 18f for its last go-round at a FOIA portal, which was a sleek consolidated directory for FOIA offices, not a portal.)

18f’s current beta site appears to allow requesters to select an agency and submit a FOIA to that agency through the portal – but not much else, and certainly nothing beyond the letter of the law.

Pustay is clear that after the new portal is unrelieved early next year, OIP wants to continue to expand its capabilities.

The next area beyond request submission that OIP and 18f should improve is searches.

18f’s own FOIA recommendations refer to the FOIA “black hole” where requesters find it nearly impossible to figure out the status of their request. If a national FOIA portal could also shed light on where FOIA requests sit in real-time (what agency it’s at, which component at that agency, and which office or person is “working” on the request) it would be a good start.

The National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight circulated an unofficial online survey on issues that arise in FOIA searches, the results of which can be found here.

FOIA Shows DEA Lied About Deadly Raid

The Drug Enforcement Administration has steadfastly maintained that a 2012 raid in the dead of night on the Mosquito Coast that left four Honduran civilians dead was the result of an exchange of gunfire between a canoe carrying DEA agents and a water taxi ferrying the Honduran civilians upriver.

A three-hour video released through FOIA (after a joint report by the inspectors general at both State and Justice) “strongly suggest” that the DEA’s version of the story is wrong – and that the fire came only from the DEA canoe.

“The video was released to the public through the Freedom of Information Act, with the law firm Jenner & Block taking on the case pro bono. A federal judge ordered the release of the video in January 2016, and the agency appealed. In June 2017, an appeals court ruled against the D.E.A., and the agency released the video.” The video was released in redacted form.

The DEA unit that carried out the raid, the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams, was disbanded before the release of the joint IG report. After the report’s release, “A bipartisan group of four senators asserted that the D.E.A. and State Department ‘repeatedly and knowingly misled members of Congress and congressional staff.’”

Border Wall Bidding Process Rushed and Confusing, FOIA Shows

A FOIA request from USA Today sheds light on the “unusually confusing and haphazard process” of contractors bidding to build prototypes of President Trump’s proposed Border Wall along the U.S. -Mexico border. Nearly 200 pages of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) documents reveal communications with companies seeking clarity on a rushed, murky bidding process that initially only gave companies 12 days to submit proposals for 30-foot high prototypes that could lead to a $300-million five-year contract. The FOIA-release also shows companies expressing “frustration that the deadline and page limits didn’t give them enough time to describe their proposals and their work experience, which could put them at a disadvantage.”

Reviewing the records Scott Amey, General Counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, concluded “It seemed more like an effort to get something done in a certain time frame and take credit for moving the border wall idea along, and make good on a campaign promise, than on getting or soliciting ideas that may be in the best interest of government taxpayers.”

Chicago Tribune

The U.S. government’s most significant prosecution of an American media outlet prior to the Pentagon Papers fell through during World War II when a grand jury refused to indict the Chicago Tribune in 1942 for an article stating the U.S. Navy had advance knowledge of Japanese plans to attack Midway Island in June of that year.

Documents recently posted by the National Security Archive detail FBI, Justice Department, and Navy efforts to charge the Tribune with damaging national security by indirectly alluding to U.S. penetration of Japan’s naval codes – one of the most sensitive secrets of the day.

The Tribune case was the first time the U.S. government tried to pursue charges against a major media source under the Espionage Act for publishing classified information – making it of particular interest in the current political environment.

The posting draws on grand jury records that had been sealed for decades until historian Elliot Carlson, joined by the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, the National Security Archive, and other historians’ organizations, filed a lawsuit for their release.

Cyber Vault Highlight: DOD’s Delegation of Authority

A National Security Archive FOIA request has won the release of a Defense Department memo delegating authority to negotiate agreements with other nations for cooperation related to information security and critical infrastructure protection. The unclassified memo is dated March 5, 2002.

The document is one of 12 new additions posted in the National Security Archive’s Cyber Vault on Wednesday, October 25.

Thanks to Michael Ravnitzky for our New URL!

The National Security Archive’s blog, Unredacted, can now be reached at the URL as well as Many thanks to Michael Ravnitzky for donating the domain name!

TBT Pick – The Negroponte File

This week’s #TBT pick is The Negroponte File, which contains 392 cables and memos recording Negroponte’s daily, and even hourly, activities as the powerful Ambassador to Honduras during the contra war in the early 1980s. They include dozens of cables in which the Ambassador sought to undermine regional peace efforts such as the Contadora initiative that ultimately won Costa Rican president Oscar Arias a Nobel Prize, as well as multiple reports of meetings and conversations with Honduran military officers who were instrumental in providing logistical support and infrastructure for CIA covert operations in support of the contras against Nicaragua -“our special project” as Negroponte refers to the contra war in the cable traffic.

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