Obama pummeling freedom of information

By Garth Kant

foia backlogs

WASHINGTON – Reporters are reknowned for swapping war stories, but they came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to tell horror stories about trying to use Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests to get the truth from the federal government.

Testifying before the House Oversight Committee, five-time Emmy award-winning investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson described receiving FOIAs with everything redacted (blacked out) but the address line.

She said it took the Defense Department 10 years to comply with one FOIA, in violation of the 20 days prescribed by law. The reporter said the Centers for Disease Control once told her it was too busy dealing with Ebola to even bother complying with her FOIA.

Attkisson testified federal bureaucrats have told her they don’t face repercussions for withholding information, but they would face “consequences” for releasing information.

Investigative reporter Leah Goodman of Newsweek said reporters with whom she had spoken feared they would be the ones facing consequences if they testified before the committee.

Sharyl Attkisson
Sharyl Attkisson

She said there were no Washington-based editors or reporters from major publications on the panel testifying before the committee because they were afraid it would have a “chilling effect” on their relations with the federal departments they cover.

Goodman said that was also the reason no one had done a major story on the problems with government agencies stonewalling FOIA requests.

Former Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, who was kidnapped in 1985 and held hostage by Hezbollah for seven years in Lebanon, said he was told by the federal government he couldn’t FOIA information on his kidnappers because it would violate their privacy rights.

Anderson said he was told he could get the information if his kidnappers signed a notarized release, but said he was not interested in reuniting with them.

Anderson also described a four-year battle with 13 federal agencies, each with their own standards and processes, over just one FOIA.

Investigative reporter Jason Leopold of Vice News said fewer than 1 percent of his thousands of FOIA requests have been processed within the required 20-day limit.

He said the Defense Department recently sent him 150 pages that were completely redacted and so useless he was trying to figure out how to turn them into an art display.

Goodman likened dealing with a federal agency to coping with an off-shore call center. She said there was truth to the joke, “If you want to know what you’ll be writing about in three years, file a FOIA.”

Leah Goodman
Leah Goodman

Attkisson concluded the FOIA system is broken, but broken by design, because of all the delays and obstructions federal agencies employ to avoid complying with the law that gives the public the right to see the information they own.

WND recently had first-hand experiences with the labyrinthine FOIA process.

Months after it FOIA’d the police report on the shooting death of unarmed, suburban mother Miriam Carey by federal officers, the request was denied by the Washington, D.C., police department.

However, WND won an appeal to the Washington, D.C., mayor’s office and the police were ordered to turn over the report.

WND also FOIA’d the Department of Justice’s report on the Carey shooting.

After a nine-month delay by the department, the watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit in April to compel the federal government to comply with the FOIA from WND.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told the Oversight Committee there was a “transparency and corruption crisis” and that the unresponsiveness of the federal government was worse now than ever. He described government agencies as “black holes.”

Fitton said Judicial Watch has filed more than 3,000 FOIAs with the Obama administration but has been forced to file 225 lawsuits to compel compliance.

He called the Obama administration’s “casual law breaking” a “national disgrace.”

Even though WND obtained the Carey shooting police report on appeal, its experience was similar to that of the reporters who described massive redactions in the material they received.

The official police report on Carey was riddled with blacked-out sections and missing information.

A police representative told WND that only names would be redacted, for purposes of privacy.

But this is one of the 322 pages of that report received by WND:
redacted pic 3

That was not an isolated example:

  • 12 pages in the report are entirely blacked out
  • 15 are mostly blacked out
  • 22 pages are partially blacked out

(That tally does not include numerous blacked-out sections and pages that appear to be redacted to protect personal information that might identify the witnesses.)

Some of the blacked-out pages just included a heading marked “Evidence.”

Some just had a date.

redacted pic 1
Some just had the handwritten word “Detective” at the top of a piece of notebook paper, indicating they are either notes or statements from an officer.

redacted pic 2

One had an entire email reply blacked out.

But that was hardly all that was not included.

Also missing from the report were:

  • Security and traffic camera videos
  • Police radio recordings or transcripts
  • Crime-scene photographs
  • Ballistics reports
  • Statements from the four officers who fired weapons
  • 38 witness statements
  • Verbatim transcripts of all the statements
  • The analysis of whether the shooting was justified
  • A summary of findings

Particularly noteworthy was that nothing in the report indicated how investigators came to the conclusion that the chase and deadly shooting of Carey were justified.

In its Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request, WND specifically sought the final report and the findings of the shooting investigation:

“All materials used in the investigation into the October 3, 2013, fatal shooting of Miriam Carey, by uniformed agents of the U.S. Secret Service, and officers of the U.S. Capitol Police Department, to include the final report and findings of that investigation.”

Miriam Carey
Miriam Carey

In his opening statement during Tuesday’s hearing, chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said one of the frustrations in trying to obtain FOIAs was that federal agencies all have their own standards for what amounts to compliance with requests. He noted that an astounding 550,000 FOIA requests had been rejected during just his six-plus years in Congress.

He released figures showing the backlog of FOIA cases that had not been processed within the statutory time limit under the Obama administration has jumped from 95,564 to 159,741 in just the year between 2013 and 2014.

And the total backlogged FOIAs had doubled since Obama took office, from 77,377 to 159, 741.

Attkisson testified that the FOIA law had become a “largely useless shadow of its intended self.”

She said agencies constantly employ new tactics to obfuscate and delay compliance, complaining they say don’t understand requests or call them too broad. They also claim to be understaffed, but “create their own delays.”

The reporter called the Justice Department one of the worse offenders, wasting untold taxpayer dollars to keep public information secret.

Attkisson said federal agencies treat Congress and the people as enemies rather than the rightful owners of public information.

The problem had grown worse, she asserted, because penalties are never imposed on agencies that do not comply with FOIA requests, “so there’s no deterrent.”

Attkisson  said only the threat of strong criminal penalties could fix the FOIA process.

Follow Garth Kant @DCgarth

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