posts about or somewhat related to ‘FOIA’

Hello, Sunshine Week
Sunshine Week is on us. Here are a few good resources on open government and transparency.
SunshineWeek.org lists events, has toolkits and shows how the Freedom of Information Act Works.
The Sunlight Foundation provides information on transparency issues, and provides API’s for developers to hack government data.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Transparency Project has  backgrounders on all things FOIA.
FOIA.gov let’s you query data and file your requests.
Reading US Attorney General Eric Holder’s now five-year-old memo to federal agencies on becoming more open to FOIA requests is eye-opening. The ostensible goal was to make agencies more open and transparent. 
Seems the message has been lost. Via the AP: 

The Obama administration has a way to go to fulfill its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history.
More often than ever, the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.
Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests.
The government’s own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that halfway through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records. In category after category - except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees - the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.

Image: Phil Lapsley, discussing turning the Freedom of Information Act into a hacking tool, via the EFF.

Hello, Sunshine Week

Sunshine Week is on us. Here are a few good resources on open government and transparency.

  • SunshineWeek.org lists events, has toolkits and shows how the Freedom of Information Act Works.
  • The Sunlight Foundation provides information on transparency issues, and provides API’s for developers to hack government data.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Transparency Project has  backgrounders on all things FOIA.
  • FOIA.gov let’s you query data and file your requests.

Reading US Attorney General Eric Holder’s now five-year-old memo to federal agencies on becoming more open to FOIA requests is eye-opening. The ostensible goal was to make agencies more open and transparent. 

Seems the message has been lost. Via the AP

The Obama administration has a way to go to fulfill its promises from Day 1 to become the most transparent administration in history.

More often than ever, the administration censored government files or outright denied access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy, according to a new analysis of federal data by The Associated Press.

Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests.

The government’s own figures from 99 federal agencies covering six years show that halfway through its second term, the administration has made few meaningful improvements in the way it releases records. In category after category - except for reducing numbers of old requests and a slight increase in how often it waived copying fees - the government’s efforts to be more open about its activities last year were their worst since President Barack Obama took office.

Image: Phil Lapsley, discussing turning the Freedom of Information Act into a hacking tool, via the EFF.

Before the Freedom of Information Act, I used to say at meetings, ‘The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.’ [laughter] But since the Freedom of Information Act, I’m afraid to say things like that.

Henry Kissinger, in a 1975 conversation at the Foreign Minister’s Office in Ankara, Turkey. WikiLeaks, Cable 0860114-1573.

Background, via Slate:

Wikileaks released a searchable database of over 1.7 million diplomatic cables from the years 1973 to 1976 today. Because so many of them — over 200,000 — are connected to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the collection is being informally dubbed the “Kissinger Cables.” But unlike previous Wikileaks document collections, this release isn’t a whistleblower leak. Instead, it’s the result of an effort to obtain and organize public documents obtained from the National Archives and Record Administration.

So, what’s in them? The findings, so far, are more interesting than they are damning. In that light, the “Kissinger Cables,” officially called “PlusD,” seem most notable as a well-organized, historical archive of the scope, tone, and depth of U.S. diplomacy around the world.

FJP: Pesky FOIA.

When the FBI Responds to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act Request

Via the ACLU:

Two key memos outlining the Justice Department’s views about when Americans can be surreptitiously tracked with GPS technology are being kept secret by the department despite a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU to force their release. The FBI’s general counsel discussed the existence of the two memos publicly last year, yet the Justice Department is refusing to release them without huge redactions…

…The Justice Department’s unfortunate decision leaves Americans with no clear understanding of when we will be subjected to tracking—possibly for months at a time—or whether the government will first get a warrant. This is yet another example of secret surveillance policies—like the Justice Department’s secret opinions about the Patriot Act’s Section 215—that simply should not exist in a democratic society. Privacy law needs to keep up with technology, but how can that happen if the government won’t even tell us what its policies are?

More background via Ars Technica:

Back in August 2012, we reported on how the American Civil Liberties Union was compelling the FBI to fully disclose how it interprets the results of the United States v. Jones case—a unanimous Supreme Court decision establishing that law enforcement does not have the authority to put a warrantless GPS tracker on a suspect’s car.

As we reported then, other types of high-tech surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement continue on a nearly daily basis around the country. Cops are using everything from tap and trace, ping data, license plate surveillance, and other techniques as a way to keep tabs on suspects and innocent citizens without going through the threshold of a judicially reviewed probable-cause-driven warrant.

Now, the ACLU has received a response to its query—with nothing. The FBI sent the ACLU back pages (PDF) upon pages (PDF) that are heavily redacted, providing zero insight into what this policy actually is.

Images: First five pages of an FBI memorandum obtained by the ACLU via a FOIA request that outlines the agency’s post United States v Jones Supreme Court decision guidelines. Fifty-four pages of the the 57-page memo are fully redacted. (PDF)

Nulpunt to Give Freedom of Information Some Digital Grunt

Every good design project starts with a problem, and one of the biggest is how to find the key facts in a sea of data. 

A design studio in Amsterdam called Metahaven is developing a product called Nulpunt to do two things: Firstly, it tells journalists and activists when their government has published a document holding information they care about, and secondly it lets users highlight, annotate and share the important sections.

Metahaven say that Nulpunt will integrate with the new Freedom of Information Laws The Netherlands is drafting. The new legislation will demand the publication of vastly more documents produced by government, the public service or private companies working on publicly funded projects. 

It’s great for transparency in theory, but assuming the laws pass and aren’t hobbled on the way through, it’ll mean that the FOI “problem” won’t be about scarcity any more, it’ll be about abundance; how to organize and sift through a vast sea of data. And that’s the problem that Metahaven is aiming to solve with Nulpunt; using key digital characteristics; personalization and socialization.

They’re not the only people to be attacking the problem space: If you’ve got youself a huge document dump you can use Document Cloud to automatically ‘read’ the files for key facts, subjects and dates, or turn to The Overview Project to get a kind of visual table of contents. 

The point of difference for Nulpunt, assuming it gets a release, seems to be that it’s designed to integrate with a specific source of information; namely the Dutch government. Metahaven are keen to launch Nulpunt in more countries, although they have also said Nulpunt will not always be non-profit and commercial free, which is a tough business model to scale.

There’s more on the product at FastCompany Design and The Verge

Nine Groups File Amicus Briefs to Support ACLU FOIA Request on US Drone Program →

The CIA recently rejected an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request for documents that disclose the US government’s guidelines for targeting US citizens and foreign nationals with drone attacks.

In its response to the ACLU request, the CIA wrote that “it can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records responsive to this request without compromising national security concerns.”

Take it away, Glenn Greenwald:

Numerous Obama officials — including the President himself and the CIA Director — have repeatedly boasted in public about this very program. Obama recently hailed the CIA drone program by claiming that “we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied,” and added that it is “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.” Obama has told playful jokes about the same drone program. Former CIA Director and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also likes to tell cute little jokes about CIA Predator drones, and then proclaimed in December that the drone program has “been very effective at undermining al Qaeda and their ability to plan those kinds of attacks.” Just two weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech purporting to legally justify these same drone attacks…

… Everyone in the world knows the CIA has a drone program. It is openly discussed everywhere, certainly including the multiple Muslim countries where the drones routinely create piles of corpses, and by top U.S. Government officials themselves.

But then when it comes time to test the accuracy of their public claims by requesting the most basic information about what is done and how execution targets are selected, and when it comes time to ask courts to adjudicate its legality, then suddenly National Security imperatives prevent the government even from confirming or denying the existence of the program: the very same program they’ve been publicly boasting and joking about. As the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer put it after Obama publicly defended the program: “At this point, the only consequence of pretending that it’s a secret program is that the courts don’t play a role in overseeing it” – that, and ensuring that any facts that contradict these public claims remain concealed.

Nine organization have now filed an Amicus — or friends of the court — brief to support an ACLU appeal against the CIA’s refusal to disclose documents that explain “when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, and how the United States ensures compliance with international laws relating to extrajudicial killing.”

The organizations signing the brief are:

The brief was written by the National Security Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

Truthout Begins Publishing Department of Homeland Security Documents on Occupy Wall Street
Last October Truthout.org’s Jason Leopold filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Department of Homeland Security for “emails, memoranda, letters, audio/video, transcripts, reports, including Threat Assessments, related to the protest movement known as ‘Occupy Wall Street.’”
Today, the first documents have been released.
According to Truthout, a California-based nonprofit, the FOIA request seeks to answer whether the DHS advised local law enforcement officials on how to respond to Occupy Wall Street and it national offshoots.
Additionally, Truthout is making the documents it receives available to the public on its Web site.
I’ve scanned through a few and what’s interesting is not any perceived or nefarious activity, but rather looking at how the DHS’s internal media team acts and reacts to incoming requests from news organizations looking for comments and statements about specific activities.
For example, the screenshot above shows DHS Press Secretary Matthew Chandler explaining to other staff how to respond to inquiries from CBS, the Associated Press, Daily Caller and Salon. Specifically, that coordination is “not occurring in any wholesale manner” and references its official position that the DHS is “treating all of these protests nationwide as peaceful demonstrations.”

Truthout Begins Publishing Department of Homeland Security Documents on Occupy Wall Street

Last October Truthout.org’s Jason Leopold filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Department of Homeland Security for “emails, memoranda, letters, audio/video, transcripts, reports, including Threat Assessments, related to the protest movement known as ‘Occupy Wall Street.’”

Today, the first documents have been released.

According to Truthout, a California-based nonprofit, the FOIA request seeks to answer whether the DHS advised local law enforcement officials on how to respond to Occupy Wall Street and it national offshoots.

Additionally, Truthout is making the documents it receives available to the public on its Web site.

I’ve scanned through a few and what’s interesting is not any perceived or nefarious activity, but rather looking at how the DHS’s internal media team acts and reacts to incoming requests from news organizations looking for comments and statements about specific activities.

For example, the screenshot above shows DHS Press Secretary Matthew Chandler explaining to other staff how to respond to inquiries from CBS, the Associated Press, Daily Caller and Salon. Specifically, that coordination is “not occurring in any wholesale manner” and references its official position that the DHS is “treating all of these protests nationwide as peaceful demonstrations.”

govtoversight:

Can you imagine if the only information we got from the government came through press releases?

govtoversight:

Can you imagine if the only information we got from the government came through press releases?

Page 39, FBI File on Steve Jobs
Via New York Magazine:

The FBI has released its file on Steven Paul Jobs, the late Apple founder, compiled mostly during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. According to the The Vault description, “In 1991, Jobs was considered for an appointed position on the U.S. President’s Export Council. This release consists of the FBI’s 1991 background investigation of Jobs for that position and a 1985 investigation of a bomb threat against him.” The background check includes tidbits like, “Several individuals questioned Mr. Jobs’ honesty stating that Mr. Jobs will twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals.”

The file can be viewed here.

Page 39, FBI File on Steve Jobs

Via New York Magazine:

The FBI has released its file on Steven Paul Jobs, the late Apple founder, compiled mostly during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. According to the The Vault description, “In 1991, Jobs was considered for an appointed position on the U.S. President’s Export Council. This release consists of the FBI’s 1991 background investigation of Jobs for that position and a 1985 investigation of a bomb threat against him.” The background check includes tidbits like, “Several individuals questioned Mr. Jobs’ honesty stating that Mr. Jobs will twist the truth and distort reality in order to achieve his goals.”

The file can be viewed here.

FBI Rejects FOIA Request over Carrier IQ Documents
The FBI rejected a Freedom of Information Request by MuckRock, a small organization that helps journalists file FOIA requests. MuckRock is seeking “manuals, documents or other written guidance used to access or analyze data gathered by programs developed or deployed by Carrier IQ.”
Carrier IQ, of course, is the company who’s software was found to be secretly logging user location and actions on millions of wireless devices. 
Via MuckRock:

What is still unclear is whether the FBI used Carrier IQ’s software in its own investigations, whether it is currently investigating Carrier IQ, or whether it is some combination of both - not unlikely given the recent uproar over the practice coupled with the U.S. intelligence communities reliance on third-party vendors. The response would seem to indicate at least the former, since the request was specifically for documents related directly to accessing and analyzing Carrier IQ data.

FBI Rejects FOIA Request over Carrier IQ Documents

The FBI rejected a Freedom of Information Request by MuckRock, a small organization that helps journalists file FOIA requests. MuckRock is seeking “manuals, documents or other written guidance used to access or analyze data gathered by programs developed or deployed by Carrier IQ.”

Carrier IQ, of course, is the company who’s software was found to be secretly logging user location and actions on millions of wireless devices. 

Via MuckRock:

What is still unclear is whether the FBI used Carrier IQ’s software in its own investigations, whether it is currently investigating Carrier IQ, or whether it is some combination of both - not unlikely given the recent uproar over the practice coupled with the U.S. intelligence communities reliance on third-party vendors. The response would seem to indicate at least the former, since the request was specifically for documents related directly to accessing and analyzing Carrier IQ data.

climateadaptation asked: Excellent catch on the CIA FOIA request denial. I happen to follow climate and national security and this cracks open some research. Many thanks! m

That’s great that our Internet scouring cropped up something useful for you. Finding bits others can run with is what we’re trying to do.

CIA Rejects Freedom of Information Act Request for Climate Data
Via Secrecy News:

When the Central Intelligence Agency established a Center on Climate Change and National Security in 2009, it drew fierce opposition from congressional Republicans who disputed the need for an intelligence initiative on this topic.  But now there is a different, and possibly better, reason to doubt the value of the Center:  It has adopted an extreme view of classification policy which holds that everything the Center does is a national security secret.
Last week, the CIA categorically denied (pdf) a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of any Center studies or reports concerning the impacts of global warming.
“We completed a thorough search for records responsive to your request and located material that we determined is currently and properly classified and must be denied in its entirety…,” wrote CIA’s Susan Viscuso to requester Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence historian affiliated with the National Security Archive.
With some effort, one can imagine records related to climate change that would be properly classified.  Such records might, for example, include information that was derived from classified collection methods or sources that could be compromised by their disclosure.  Or perhaps such records might present analysis reflecting imminent threats to national security that would be exacerbated rather than corrected by publicizing them.
But that’s not what CIA said.  Rather, it said that all of the Center’s work is classified and there is not even a single study, or a single passage in a single study, that could be released without damage to national security.  That’s a familiar song, and it became tiresome long ago.

Image: Global Temperature Trends via NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

CIA Rejects Freedom of Information Act Request for Climate Data

Via Secrecy News:

When the Central Intelligence Agency established a Center on Climate Change and National Security in 2009, it drew fierce opposition from congressional Republicans who disputed the need for an intelligence initiative on this topic. But now there is a different, and possibly better, reason to doubt the value of the Center: It has adopted an extreme view of classification policy which holds that everything the Center does is a national security secret.

Last week, the CIA categorically denied (pdf) a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of any Center studies or reports concerning the impacts of global warming.

“We completed a thorough search for records responsive to your request and located material that we determined is currently and properly classified and must be denied in its entirety…,” wrote CIA’s Susan Viscuso to requester Jeffrey Richelson, an intelligence historian affiliated with the National Security Archive.

With some effort, one can imagine records related to climate change that would be properly classified. Such records might, for example, include information that was derived from classified collection methods or sources that could be compromised by their disclosure. Or perhaps such records might present analysis reflecting imminent threats to national security that would be exacerbated rather than corrected by publicizing them.

But that’s not what CIA said. Rather, it said that all of the Center’s work is classified and there is not even a single study, or a single passage in a single study, that could be released without damage to national security. That’s a familiar song, and it became tiresome long ago.

Image: Global Temperature Trends via NOAA Environmental Visualization Laboratory.

The United States Freedom of Information Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and is meant to give citizens access to previously unreleased federal government information and documents.

Over the years, different presidents have both restricted and expanded the law. For example, the Clinton administration issued executive directives that allowed for the release of previously classified national security documents that were more than 25 years old, while the Bush administration limited access to the records of former presidents.

The Knight Foundation released a study yesterday on FOIA’s progress under the Obama administration. Here’s some of what they have to say:

On his first day in office in January 2009, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum instructing federal agencies to “usher in a new era of open government.” In March 2010, however, the 2010 Knight Open Government Survey found that only 13 out of 90 agencies had actually made concrete changes in their FOIA procedures. The resulting national headlines sparked a new White House call to all agencies to show concrete change.

This year, the 2011 Knight Open Government Survey found that a few more than half of the federal agencies have complied – up from 13 to 49.

“At this rate, the president’s first term in office may be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office,” commented Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funded the study.

Resources:

US Intelligence Imagery to be Released →

Secrecy News is reporting that the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency is looking for a contractor to digitize and release “approximately 4 million linear feet of film up to approximately 7 inches in width.”

The film contains historical intelligence satellite imagery.

For those counting, four million feet is about 757 miles.