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Obama Library to Depart From Status Quo, Signs of Life for Central FOIA Portal, and More: FRINFORMSUM 2/21/2019

February 21, 2019

The Obama Center will not include a federal presidential library. Instead, all unclassified records will be made available digitally. Picture: The Obama Foundation

For Better or Worse, The Obama Library to Depart From Status Quo

The National Archives and Records Administration has released its agreement with the Obama Foundation that outlines how the Foundation’s plan to depart from the traditional NARA-run presidential library model – in favor of digitizing all of Obama’s 30 million unclassified paper records – will comply with the Presidential Records Act.

While all of Obama’s unclassified documents will be released through both the New Obama Library website and the NARA catalog, there will be no research library on site. This change has prompted concerns that presidential scholarship may suffer, and begs questions about what this model could mean for future presidents unconcerned with preserving “nonpartisan public history,” according to the New York Times.

The reasons behind the Obama Foundation’s decision to abandon the current presidential library model are, to the extent known, varied. Obama’s records are born digital more so than any of his predecessors – the Times cites “some 300 million emails, as well as Snapchat posts, tweets and other born-digital records” will be published electronically in addition to the 30 million paper records. And a new law would have required the Obama Foundation to pay NARA 60 percent of construction costs for federally-run portions of the center, whereas earlier libraries only had to pay 20 percent. NARA’s administration of the presidential library system may also be a factor: the backlogs are extensive; quality and responsiveness varies markedly from one library to another; and the FOIA/MDR process is, as our FOIA director Nate Jones notes, broken.

Last year NARA announced it will be consolidating all of the classified materials from the current 13 presidential libraries – about 75 million pages – in Washington, D.C. for declassification review. NARA argues this will make the declassification of classified presidential library materials more efficient for both historians and NARA’s budget. The NARA/Obama Foundation memorandum of understanding does not address this, but it is likely the New Obama Library will also send its classified materials to NARA.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama Foundation will release the 30 million unclassified pages without redactions, and what the declassification of classified documents will look like without an official Obama Presidential Library to submit FOIA and MDR requests to (though the likely answer is they will be submitted directly to NARA). What is clear is that the current presidential library system is painfully broken for historians, and as long as NARA controls the classified records, historians will have just as tough a time accessing Obama’s most historically significant records.

Signs of Life for Universal FOIA Portal?

The Office of Management and Budget and the Justice Department have told agencies to respond by May 10 with their plans ensuring that their in-house FOIA software will successfully interact with a central FOIA portal. The OMB-DOJ memo “lays out the two ways agencies can achieve interoperability — either by accepting requests through a structured application programming interface (API) or by accepting the request as a formal, structured e-mail to a designated email inbox.” The move comes more than two years after the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act mandated the creation of a central portal for filing and tracking FOIA requests and is a step in the right direction, albeit a belated one. Sean Moulton of the Project on Government Oversight is cautiously optimistic about the guidance, “However, there are some concerns that the memo remains vague about how the interoperability will be achieved,” he said. “I found it odd that the memo didn’t establish more of a structure to oversee the process. There doesn’t seem to be lead agency to make final decisions on anything, nor does it establish an interagency working group to tackle the issue and identify problems and solutions.”

Emails Show How Often Secretary Chao Meets with Kentucky Leaders

More than 800 pages of FOIA-released emails shed light on Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s relationships with leaders from her husband’s – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – home state of Kentucky. The emails, which were obtained by American Oversight and provided to Politico, show that Secretary Chao “met at least 10 times with politicians and business leaders from the state in response to requests from McConnell’s office.” While the records do now show how often Sec. Chao met with leaders from outside of Kentucky, they do show “McConnell’s staff acting as a conduit between Chao and Kentucky political figures or business leaders, some of whom previously have had relationships with the couple.” The Transportation Department insists no favoritism exists for Senator McConnell’s requests, and the Senator’s office notes he “regularly advocates for Kentuckians” with Congress and the Cabinet. If nothing else, “the emails offer a rare glimpse at the working relationship between Chao and McConnell, who aside from a few confrontations with protesters, typically maintain a low public profile about their mutual interactions.”

“Following the Money”

CyberScoop recently highlighted the Archive’s Cyber Project’s posting on North Korea’s 2016 cyberattack against the Bank of Bangladesh that successfully stole $81 million. The Archive’s report and timeline, pieced together by court filings, is notable for showing “how the hackers used low-tech means to launder the money.” As the Archive’s Cyber team notes, “Given the multitude of cyber-enabled money laundering techniques available, including cryptocurrencies and online game economies (which would function similarly to purchasing casino chips), the comparatively analogue manner in which the spoils of one of the largest cyber-heists to date was laundered is remarkable.”

TBT Pick: The Defense Intelligence Agency, Declassified

This week’s #TBT pick is a 2015 posting spotlighting the secretive DIA – one of the government’ largest and least well-known intelligence organizations. Edited by Jeffrey Richelson, the posting highlights 50 notable documents, including: an internal memo about the infamous Iraqi defector known as CURVEBALL and the false intelligence he provided about Iraq’s supposed WMD programs; a 180-page review of the case of DIA analyst Ana Belen Montes, convicted of supplying secrets to the Cubans several analyses of Iraqi and Chinese weapons of mass destruction programs; and descriptions of DIA’s interest in “psychoenergetics” activities such as extrasensory perception, telepathy, and remote viewing.

The posting also features dozens of issues of the DIA’s in-house publication, Communiqué, the DIA’s unclassified, in-house magazine that was available not only to DIA employees but their families, and contained significant information about DIA that the agency often redacted from other documents released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. Publication was halted in 2013 following a directive from the agency’s director, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

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