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FOIA Request Seeks More Info on Citizenship Question for 2020 Census, and More: FRINFORMSUM 7/26/2018

July 26, 2018

Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross. Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Emails Shed Light on Contentious Census Question

Redacted Commerce Department emails released as part of an ongoing lawsuit show that the Trump administration discussed adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census within months of Trump taking office. The 600-plus emails, which NPR has filed FOIA requests for to help peel back the redactions, contradict the administration’s earlier claims that the question was being added at the request of the Justice Department to better enforce the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The emails instead show that in May 2017 Steve Bannon, then President Trump’s strategist, tasked Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross with talking “to someone about the census.” A month later, Secretary Ross’ aid “pledged to press Justice Department officials to say they needed better citizenship data for law enforcement.”

Interior Department’s “Inadvertent” FOIA Release Shows Bias Towards Developers in National Monument Battle

Emails released by the Interior Department in response to a FOIA request show that, during the course of a review of 27 national monuments that place the designated lands off limits to developers, agency officials “dismissed evidence that these public sites boosted tourism and spurred archaeological discoveries.” Comments made in the documents – which the Interior Department later retracted, arguing it had “inadvertently posted an incorrect version of the files” – show Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and others “tailored their survey of protected sites to emphasize the value of logging, ranching and energy development that would be unlocked if they were not designated national monuments.” The department also dismissed analysis that the “existing restrictions had not hurt fishing operators and agency reports finding that less vandalism occurred as a result of monument designations.”

The FOIA release also shows the Interior Department did not plan to incorporate any material submitted though public comments to their regulatory proposals, as is typically the case. A DOI official says instead, “’barring a surprise, there is no new information that’s going to be submitted’ through the public comment process on the monuments review.”

Michel Camdessus, head of the IMF, looks on as Indonesian President Suharto signs an agreement in Jakarta (1998). AP Photo.

Twenty years after Suharto’s Downfall

Newly declassified records released by the National Security Archive show that the Clinton administration sought to preserve close ties to the Indonesian Armed Forces as President Suharto’s rule came to an end in May 1998, even as the Army carried out significant human rights abuses. Documents show that US officials were aware of the military’s involvement in kidnappings and disappearances of student activists going on at the time but saw preservation of the Army’s role as central to political stability in the country.

Get the whole story here.

How the New York Times Uses FOIA to Make Headline News (Hint: It Sues)

“In the case of Scott Pruitt’s E.P.A., were it not for FOIA, we certainly would not have been able to do as much as we did or tell the kinds of stories that we were able to tell.” This is according to New York Times’ climate and environmental policy reporter Lisa Friedman for an article on how the paper uses FOIA to break stories – which it (and others) did with such success in Pruitt’s case that he ultimately resigned.  The article underscores the importance of filing appeals and, increasingly, suing. Of the importance of lawsuits in FOIA’s news-breaking success, Times’ reporter Charlie Savage says, “FOIA is basically useless if you don’t file a lawsuit to force the government to act.”

City of Houston Issues Benchmark FOIA Indictment for Failure to Release Documents  

Darian Ward, the former press secretary for Houston mayor Sylvester Turner, was recently indicted by a grand jury for “violating state law by failing to turn over public records in response to a reporter’s request late last year.” The District Attorney’s office says Ward lied about the number of responsive records about Ward’s personal business activities – of which there were roughly 5,000 pages of emails – and unlawfully withheld the records. Many of the emails “dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she served as an adviser.”

If convicted, Ward could face up to six months in jail or a maximum fine of $1,000.

USCIS’ FOIA System Raises Questions About Automation 

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service is rolling out the next phase of its “Freedom of Information Act Immigration Records SysTem (FIRST) — a system that will ‘eventually’ allow requesters to navigate the entire FOIA process digitally.” USCIS announced that now requesters who file FOIA requests with the agency can expect a response to be emailed to them, although requests still need to be sent via fax, email, or mail. USCIS says that when the program is completed in September, “requesters will be able to use a completely digital FOIA/PA system, from online submission to retrieving and downloading responsive documents.”

The USCIS news comes on the heels of the decreased functionality of FOIAonline, which the site says is temporary. The USCIS announcement begs the question of why agencies are pursuing individual programs that are, in effect, individual agency FOIA portals, when the 2016 FOIA amendments mandates that there be a single, government-wide FOIA portal?

A Chief FOIA Officers meeting held on July 19 further addressed agencies’ growing interest in using automation to respond to FOIA requests and to reduce backlogs.

Time will tell how much automation will help, given that “new data from the Justice Department shows half of the agencies that receive the most open records requests saw their backlogs increase.” And because Chief FOIA Officers argue that “At the end of the day, a human needs to sit and review records, and make judgment decisions, and a computer can never do that,” it is unclear that more efficient technology would necessarily result in more common sense FOIA releases.

TBT Pick – U.S. Embassy Tracked Indonesia Mass Murder 1965

This week’s #TBT pick is a 2017 posting showing that the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta tracked had detailed knowledge that the Indonesian Army was conducting a campaign of mass murder against the country’s Communist Party. More postings from our Indonesia Documentation Project can be found here.

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