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FOIA Helps Show Elaine Chao’s Transportation Department Has Special Liaison for Husband’s Home State Projects: FRINFORMSUM 6/13/2019

June 13, 2019

Sen. Mitch McConnell and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at a parade in Madisonville, Ky., on Nov. 2, 2014. | Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call.

Emails Released through FOIA Show Special Relationship between Transportation Dept. and State of Kentucky

FOIA-released records obtained by American Oversight and provided to Politico illuminate how Transportation Department Secretary Elaine Chao prioritizes requests from Kentucky – home state of her husband and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Specifically, the department established a special liaison, Chao’s chief of staff Todd Inman who is also a longtime Kentucky resident, “to help with grant applications and other priorities…paving the way for grants totaling at least $78 million for favored projects as McConnell prepared to campaign for reelection.” Other states do not have a special liaison within the department.

This revelation comes on the heels of a February release of more than 800 pages of FOIA-released emails that further detail Chao’s office’s relationship with leaders from Kentucky. The emails 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 not 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.”

FOIA Records Shed Light on Dept. of Interior Efforts to Stymie Humanitarian Aid Along the Southern Border

A federal jury in Tucson was unable to reach a verdict in the case of Scott Warren, a geographer who was charged with human smuggling last year in connection with his work for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths, which leaves food and water for migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert and has led efforts to recover remains of those who have died. Judge Raner C. Collins dismissed the jury and the U.S. attorney’s office has yet to indicate if it will seek another trial.

Warren’s was one of three No More Deaths-related trials, and FOIA requests from earlier this year help show what the Department of Interior has done to target the aid group. Specifically, emails released to The Intercept under the FOIA detail how the Fish and Wildlife Service, an Department of Interior agency that administers much of the land on the southern Arizona border, has sought to blacklist its members from access to a number of public sites. The FOIA release focuses largely on the communications of Fish and Wildlife official Sidney Slone, who worked to make the permitting process for No More Deaths much more stringent. Slone’s growing frustration with the food, clothing, and plastic gallon water jugs purportedly left by the volunteers are evident throughout the exchanges. The Intercept’s Ryan Deveraux argues, “The newly released materials illustrate how generations of hard-line border enforcement measures collide with government wilderness preservation priorities, creating a situation in which thousands of people have died and the actions of those working to prevent further loss of life have been criminalized in the name of environmental conservation.”

Congressional Transparency Caucus 

Alex Howard has a useful rundown of the June 7 Congressional Transparency Caucus meeting – “a remarkable forum inside of the United States Capitol that featured ten presentations from government officials and members of civil society on innovative tools and technologies.” Presenters included Demand Progress’ Daniel Schuman, ProPublica’s Derek Willis, and the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz. The live stream and Howard’s analysis can be found here.

DHS IG Resigns after Whitewashing FEMA Audits

The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General, John V. Kelly, has resigned after reports that he instructed his staff to misrepresent the agency’s disaster response. The internal review, which was completed over 14 months and was obtained by the Washington Post, found that Kelly “overrode auditors” and instructed them “to ignore more problems,” and ordered them to produce “feel-good reports.” This practice spanned five years, 2012-2017, which saw some of the country’s most catastrophic natural disasters – from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy to the epic 2016 flooding throughout southern Louisiana. In 2017 Kelly’s office, facing Congressional pressure, purged 13 faulty reports from its website, including the Louisiana flooding report, with a notice that they were “not compliant” with federal auditing standards. During Kelly’s tenure, negative information not placed in audits was sometimes placed in “spin-off” reports.

Guatemalan Police Archives.

Kate Doyle Talks with The Intercept about Threat to Guatemala’s Historical Archive of the National Police

The Archive’s Guatemala Documentation Project Director, Kate Doyle, recently spoke with the Intercept’s Cora Currier about the current threat to Guatemala’s National Police Archives – a once decaying building containing five miles worth of paper documents belonging to the National Police, the central branch of Guatemala’s security forces – an entity so deeply involved in repression during the armed conflict that the 1996 peace accords mandated it be completely disbanded.

Doyle gives a riveting history of the archive and how it was, somewhat miraculously, discovered:

“Their records ended up on a sprawling police base in Zone 6 of Guatemala City, a busy working-class neighborhood downtown. They were shut up inside an abandoned cluster of buildings inside this big base that had a lot of different barracks and activities and all kinds of things going on. Fast forward to 2005, when residents of that neighborhood called the government’s human rights prosecutor and asked for his help in determining whether weapons and munitions were being stored properly on the base. In the course of that somewhat routine inspection of the base, the investigators found these documents, and that is how this enormous, abandoned, moldering collection of documents — millions and millions of historical files of the abolished National Police — came to be found.”

Doyle also cites her concerns that Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales may not only use national security concerns as a cover for closing the archives, but that the government may take legal action against the Swiss government and the University of Texas at Austin, which both have backup copies of the archives.

For more information on the police archives, visit our special collection.

The “Launch on Warning” Nuclear Strategy and Its Insider Critics

“Launch-on-warning,” a feature of U.S. nuclear warfighting strategy since the late 1970s, has frequently faced intensive criticism because of the high risk of accidental launches and uncontrollable outcomes, including massive casualties, according to recently declassified records recently posted by the Archive. Yet, successive presidential administrations have stood by a prompt-launch approach. Two newly declassified highlights of the posting are White House adviser William Odom’s critique of launch-under-attack and President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Decision Directive 13, which provided criteria for nuclear war planning, including the role of launch-on-warning as a way to keep Moscow “uncertain.”

TBT pick – The Guatemalan Death Squad Diary and the Right to Truth

This week’s #TBT pick is a 2012 posting on Doyle’s 2012 testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of the Diario Militar in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and features a transcript of her testimony. She begins, “the State of Guatemala has systematically hidden the information in its power about the internal armed conflict. The Guatemalan Army, the Police and the intelligence services are intrinsically opaque, secretive and closed institutions, and it has been almost impossible to gain access to their records. This policy of silence has survived the peace accords; it has survived the Historical Clarification Commission; and it continues today – despite the discovery of archives, the exhumations of clandestine cemeteries, the criminal convictions of perpetrators of human rights violations, and the unceasing demand for information by families of the disappeared.”

Read the entire testimony here.

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