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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Global Freedom of Information & the National Security Archive

This posting covers a fascinating area of activity for access organizations like the National Security Archive – the international freedom of information movement. Toby McIntosh, a colleague and expert who edits “freedominfo.org,” a FOI clearinghouse sponsored by the Archive, is my co-author on today’s piece, which gives a broad overview of transparency developments overseas.

[By the way, this is our last posting about the National Security Archive. It’s been a pleasure to be a guest blogger this month and I’m grateful to James Jacobs for the invitation. Hope to hear from you or see you at Gelman Library at George Washington University!]

* * * *

STATE OF PLAY

Most Americans would likely agree that the right of access to government information is a cornerstone of our political system. But it would probably surprise a lot of people to know that the U.S. was not the first country to inscribe the concept into law. That honor goes to Sweden whose Parliament – in 1766 – adopted “His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating to Freedom of Writing and of the Press,” which provided for abolishing political censorship and securing public access to government documents.[1] Exactly 200 years would pass before the United States would enact the Freedom of Information Act.

The U.S. was still relatively early to the game. Only Finland (which was actually part of Sweden when the first act was passed) approved a similar law before us – in 1951. A handful of other European states followed in the 1970s, and by 1990 there were 14 members in the club. But the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall saw that number rocket upwards.

Today there are 93 countries with freedom of information acts – known also as right-to-know (RTI), or access-to-information laws. Most of these countries – 38 – are in Europe; 22 are in the Americas. Asia has 18; Africa has nine; and the Middle East and Oceania three apiece. (Several of these countries, unlike the U.S., have even put the concept in their Constitution.)[2]

There are multiple reasons for this global blossoming of openness. In some (mostly democratic) countries, like Japan, scandals like the Lockheed bribery case helped drive the process. In Thailand, South Africa and elsewhere, access was part of a broader dynamic of political, economic or educational reform. The collapse of Soviet-led communism from 1989-1991 was a major impetus, prompting several former socialist states to adopt statutes to open their secret histories and help put their pasts behind them.[3]

The individual instigators in different countries were equally diverse, ranging from civil society groups pressing for stricter environmental enforcement or pro-consumer or anti-corruption measures, to parents trying to make school systems operate more fairly.

Two of the biggest international FOI success stories have been India and Mexico.

With legal debate on the issue stretching back to a Supreme Court ruling in 1975 (i.e., that access to information is a fundamental right), India finally passed the Right to Information Act in 2005. A wide-ranging law, its written provisions and implementing measures are often highly creative in the ways they deal with the circumstances facing average citizens.[4]

In the state of Bihar, for instance, where literacy rates are below 50% but cell phone penetration approaches 70%, local authorities created a 24/7 call center to allow the filing of RTI requests. Similarly, with the Internet accessible to only 10% of the population, local government procurement data is literally put up on walls in public areas for all to see. (Unlike in the U.S., India’s 30-day deadline for a response means something. If agencies don’t comply, they get phone calls from RTI authorities demanding that they follow up.)[5]

Mexico’s access to information law, passed in 2002, has turned into a global model, setting a new international standard for transparency by creating a Federal Access to Information Institute (IFAI), that implements and oversees the law at the national level, and Infomex, a Web site that lets users file information requests electronically. Over 300,000 requests have been submitted since the law was implemented.[6]

These cases are not entirely representative, unfortunately. Getting access laws passed and ensuring they have adequate muscle has been anything but smooth sailing. Government and civil activists face persistent challenges trying to beat back pressures from central authorities, the military, local bureaucrats, or wealthy business interests. Even developments like the war on terror have threatened progress on the openness front (not least in the USA).

Current struggles to get new laws through parliaments are underway worldwide, with hotspots including the Philippines, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Key points of debate usually center around the scope of the law’s coverage, the strength of the exemptions, the time frames for responses, and the system for adjudication of disputes.

After passage of these laws, the controversy often continues. The Indian prime minister set off a firestorm recently by complaining about the “frivolous” use of the Right to Information Act. In Denmark, the government wants to amend its law to better protect materials developed during the policymaking process. And in Scotland, activists want more public-private partnerships covered.

THE ARCHIVE’S ROLE

In the late 1980s, when political ferment was afoot in Eastern Europe during the Gorbachev era, the National Security Archive received a visit from a small group of young political activists from Hungary. Their organization, FIDESZ, wanted to know how to make a freedom of information process work in their country – looking ahead with characteristic optimism (but also great foresight) to the day when the communist regime in power for the previous four decades would finally teeter and fall. So they came to the Archive to hear our experiences, a visit that started a lively and extraordinarily fruitful partnership with similar groups across Eastern Europe and later the former Soviet Union.

In the years since, the Archive has become increasingly active around the world, following events in places as far-flung as South Africa, the Philippines, and Guatemala. By providing our own experiences as a civil society organization and also taking the lead in helping to bring like-minded groups together with FOI legal experts, we’ve worked to get local populations started on the complicated process of building their own information access institutions.

In Mexico, for instance, the Archive collaborates closely with scholars, lawyers, and openness advocates engaged in the public debate about the right to know. We bring international transparency activists to train Mexican NGOs on the effective use of FOI laws in advocacy work. We organize conferences to encourage network-building across the country. We also encourage the news media to monitor government transparency programs and to use FOI laws in pursuit of breaking news stories.

In the former Soviet Union, Archive staff have supported a series of FOIA advocacy groups from St. Petersburg to the Caucasus in their efforts at monitoring, education, and legal work surrounding new pieces of access legislation that have been adopted in Russia and neighboring countries. Their energetic campaign has featured filing lawsuits against the Russian Federal Security Service and applying to the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation in opposition to restrictions on materials on political repression in the Soviet Union. The Archive has also co-organized international conferences and training sessions for FOIA activists from Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Campaigns for more and better FOI laws are only a part of the larger transparency picture.

For several years, the Archive has cooperated with human rights groups, ombudsmen, special commissioners, international courts, supreme courts and other official and civil society groups investigating and prosecuting human rights abuses. These efforts typically center around obtaining documentation (from U.S. and local government files) that can be used as evidence in those proceedings. Our staff has been active in a dozen countries, from Peru to Liberia to Indonesia to Spain, witnessing some remarkable results. In 2008, Archive-supplied documents and expert testimony helped convict Peruvian ex-ruler Alberto Fujimori of human rights abuses in the 1990s. These experiences are invaluable for stimulating local governments and groups to press for laws and procedures to open broad public access to their own hidden files.

One of the more significant areas of potential change currently relates to international financial/trade institutions (IFTIs) – from the World Bank to NATO. IFTIs are generally creatures of national central banks that have always been notoriously opaque. In 2003, freedominfo.org launched an initiative to measure, test, compare and ultimately increase openness within these institutions by publishing detailed reports on individual organizations, and thereby sparking a series of collaborations between freedom of information advocates and IFTI campaigners. Freedominfo.org’s continuing work and results can be found in a special section called “IFTI Watch.”

Finally, in September 2011, the Obama administration initiated the Open Government Partnership. The OGP is a “multi-stakeholder collaboration,” drawing in civil society organizations (of which the National Security Archive is one) as well as governments. Eight governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the U.S.) initially endorsed an Open Government Declaration, then promulgated country action plans “to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.” The OGP now has 57 member nations who have pledged to make commitments toward more open governance.[7] (FreedomInfo.org has written about 100 articles on the OGP.)

RESOURCES

With so many new developments on the international front, it’s becoming more of a challenge to keep track of all that is happening. This is a particularly critical issue for those who are working to spread the adoption of RTI laws. Knowing about best practices and being able to draw on the experiences of similarly inclined groups around the world are key to these efforts.

Freedominfo.org is geared toward keeping abreast of these issues. It also provides useful research materials for free distribution. (For the texts of laws, background documents, links to national organizations and country-specific articles, see the “Country Info” tab; or search by country name.)

There’s also an email that goes out to subscribers (no charge) once or twice a week on current news and research, and freedominfo.org’s Blog Roll provides a listing of more than 100 active blogs on FOI issues.

For the best listing of FOI-related conferences and events, see the one maintained by the Carter Center here:

http://www.cartercenter.org/peace/americas/access_to_information/calendar.html.

FOI laws internationally vary considerably, but there are not too many broad comparative materials available. One valuable resource is by Toby Mendel, “Freedom of Information: a Comparative Law Survey,” published in many languages by UNESCO:

http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=26159&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html

A country-by-country rating showing a wide variety in the quality of the legal framework of FOI laws has been done by the Centre for Democracy and Law and Access Info:

http://www.rti-rating.org/index.html.

There’s plenty else out there. But we hope this material is a start, and we encourage you and your colleagues to learn more about the international FOI movement. Feel free to sign up with freedominfo.org or any of the other entities above, or write to us with questions.

Malcolm Byrne
Deputy Director and Research Director
The National Security Archive
mbyrne@gwu.edu

Toby McIntosh
Editor
Freedominfo.org
tmcintosh@bna.com
__________________

Endnotes:

[1] The World’s First Freedom of Information Act: Anders Chydenius’ Legacy Today, (Kokkola, Finland: Anders Chydenius Foundation, 2006), see www.chydenius.net.
[2] http://www.freedominfo.org/2012/10/93-countries-have-foi-regimes-most-tallies-agree/. At least one expert, David Banisar, counts 99, including countries and “jurisdictions” with “laws” and “regulations.” Download his latest map from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1857498.
[3] See the freedominfo.org Web site for details on developments across the world. For an excellent overview of global trends and issues that remains relevant, see Thomas Blanton, “The World’s Right to Know,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2002, pp. 50-58. On the former communist system, see Malcolm Byrne, “Freedom of Information in the Post-Communist World,” Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 50, No. 2, March-April 2003, p. 56.
[4] http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/east-asia/india/.
[5] Tom Blanton, presentation, “Access to Information and Accountability: A Global Context,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, October 11, 2012. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/access-to-information-and-accountability-global-context.
[6] http://www.freedominfo.org/regions/latin-america/mexico/.
[7] See the Open Government Partnership Web site: http://www.opengovpartnership.org/about.

Inside the “Digital National Security Archive”

This week’s posting, our third on the National Security Archive, describes an area of activity that may be of particular interest to the librarians among this site’s readers – the methodology we use to put together the Archive’s flagship publication series, the “Digital National Security Archive.” DNSA is a constantly growing, highly curated collection of declassified documentation covering topics in the history of U.S. foreign policy from the 1940s to the present. It is published by ProQuest. Today’s blog is written by staff Indexer Stacey Chambers, on behalf of the National Security Archive’s Production Team.

* * * *

The word “production” may evoke machinery and factory workers churning out widgets, but at the National Security Archive, the word refers to the careful analysis and description of documents for publication in the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) and its print and microfiche counterparts.

DNSA currently consists of 38 aggregated, large-scale publications on a wide array of subjects – from nuclear history to the Cuban missile crisis to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; from the U.S. intelligence community to the military uses of space; and from U.S. policy toward its great Cold War rivals – the USSR and China – to America’s relations with a host of other countries: Japan, Korea, South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Philippines and elsewhere. The collections average about 2,500 documents apiece, and altogether total more than 650,000 pages of declassified records to date. The front matter – along with the cataloging and indexing that our staff of three trained librarians produces – amounts to as much as 1,200 pages of printed text per set.

We in the National Security Archive’s Production Team do type mass quantities of words and characters into database records – but the data in question is the result of extensive research, editing, and review – and before that, the product of the expert selection, legwork, and meticulous preliminary cataloging of project analysts and their assistants.

Indeed, the life of a DNSA collection, or “set,” begins with an analyst. By the time the Production Team enters the picture, an analyst will have already spent three-to-five years (sometimes more) identifying and amassing a large pool of documents – arduously obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, research at relevant archives and repositories, and occasional donations – before carefully choosing the records that will go into the final publication. (Each project has an advisory board of outside experts who are consulted about set content.) The analyst’s team will have also begun or completed work on an introductory essay, chronology, glossaries, and other invaluable front matter.

Drawing upon this information, a project analyst delivers a detailed briefing about the subject matter of the collection to the Production Team, to provide the context and scope that is so important to have in mind as we start our phase of the process. To supplement this briefing, indexers also take a “reading period” to absorb the content of analyst-recommended and well-indexed books that we consult continually.

Next, the analyst-selected boxes of paper documents, or scanned PDF documents viewable through specially designed repository software (originally produced by Captaris/Alchemy), arrive in the Production Team’s seventh-floor office at Gelman Library – already crowded with boxes of documents, reference works, and views of goings-on outside nearby George Washington University buildings – and Production Team members each claim batches of documents and set about cataloging them.

In doing so, we typically capture the following information from a document: its date (or estimated “circa date”); title (or “constructed title,” for those documents lacking a formal or descriptive title); originating agency; document type and number; highest official classification; length; excisions and annotations; bricks-and-mortar location or Web site from which the document was originally retrieved, if not through FOIA; keywords; and personal names and organizations cited. We also record information about the physical state of a document – for example, if it is missing pages or is difficult to read – and construct a brief, one-paragraph abstract, or précis, to describe the document’s content. We have refined these metadata fields over the course of 20 years of producing these sets and obtaining feedback from users.

To populate the foregoing fields in our Cuadra STAR bibliographic database, we consult a range of reference sources, from Wikipedia as a starting point – we love its articles’ External Links section – to the State Department’s Office of the Historian Web pages and prized copies of decades-old State Department and Defense Department telephone books – to the wealth of subscription reference databases freely available to us through GWU’s Gelman Library.

Further, we consult the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names to verify geographic terms, and the Library of Congress Authorities to verify personal names [e.g., the Korean name “Ahn, S.H. (Se Hee)”] and sometimes subjects – though we primarily base the concepts contained in our authority file on the United Nations Bibliographic Information System. (Our internally generated authority file currently approaches 56,000 entries.) Where the UNBIS is lacking for our purposes – particularly in military and intelligence terminology – we may consult military branch Web pages, hard copies of specialized encyclopedias, old volumes of the Europa World Year Book, or other authoritative sources to establish or update terms, while adhering to such general guidelines as our in-house cataloging manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, and of course, the common sense of a user’s perspective.

Despite the excellent resources at our disposal, we often encounter unknowns in cataloging – but find that solving a mystery in one document frequently solves those in others. For example, in many cases, information about the agency that produced a document is missing, but by examining the document’s context, FOIA or repository information, format, and the analyst’s expertise, we can reach an educated conclusion.

Similarly, we may also safely deduce the real name of a person to whom a misspelled name refers. In one fun example in which human indexing proves indispensable, while working on a collection of “The Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy: 1969-1977,” indexers encountered a memorandum of a telephone conversation in which the secretary who was secretly transcribing Henry Kissinger’s words recorded what she heard as “Nelson’s tongue,” when in fact they were talking about Mao Zedong! In such cases, we document in an internal-memo field the process we used to arrive at our decision. However, in cases when we have too many doubts due to too few context clues to verify facts, we must resort to entering a field value of “Origin Unknown,” or to leaving non-required fields blank.

The same principle applies to the document-level indexing and abstracting part of the Production Team’s work: one archival document often informs another. For example, a memorandum or quickly jotted note may not expressly state its context, but through our understanding of the context in which it was created, we add the words – in the subject or abstract field – that render documents on similar subjects retrievable. Nobody sits down at a meeting and declares, “Now let’s talk about human rights”; they just do it. So, our job is to grasp the context and determine the subject, especially when it is not explicitly stated.

On occasions when we cannot resolve a quandary ourselves, we may turn directly to the project analyst for answers – including to question whether a particular document belongs in a set. For example, in the forthcoming collection “Argentina, 1975-1990: The Making of U.S. Human Rights Policy,” analyst Carlos Osorio confirmed that even though a 1979 briefing memorandum did not mention Argentina specifically, the document should be retained because it showed how U.S. policymakers were shifting their attention to Central America.

Throughout the four-to-six months we typically spend producing a set, we will have taken several steps along the way to preserve quality: held regular terms meetings in an effort to control the consistency and usability of the set’s vocabulary; reviewed printouts of completed catalog records against the documents; addressed any outstanding copyright issues; and edited abstracts multiple times.

Once we have finished all indexing, abstracting, and reviewing, we proceed to a final quality-control phase involving lots of coffee and reading aloud from oversized sheets of paper, to ensure that records are in their proper order; and to resolve any errors, inconsistencies, or outstanding issues. The process begins with assigning each record a sequence number, dictated by the records’ correct arrangement by date, and then alphabetically by a series of descending elements. Then indexers work in pairs to verify the accuracy of each data element. When we’re done, we repeat the process to ensure that the correct catalog record is assigned to the document it describes. This process may from the outside appear tedious or even torturous, but it is needed to deliver a clean, finished product to our co-publisher, ProQuest.

Meanwhile, the Production Team will have also taken time to create and review hierarchical cross references among the set’s records, so that users are appropriately redirected – not only to broader or narrower terms used in the set, but also from commonly used acronyms or plain-language terms to the set’s controlled vocabulary. Also during this wrap-up stage, the Production Director and Publications Director will have been generating last-minute lists to be checked, editing the set’s vital front matter in collaboration with the project analyst and Research Director, and tending to other publishing demands … that is, until the analyst calls with “a few more essential documents … ”

Stacey Chambers
Indexer
The National Security Archive

Tips on How to Use the Freedom of Information Act

Hope everyone enjoyed the Columbus Day holiday!

Last week, I gave an overview of the National Security Archive and its goal to break loose for public consumption previously unavailable historical records. Critical to those efforts is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which, along with the related Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) process, is one of the most important, yet arguably least appreciated, tools we have in this country for opening up our history, understanding how our government works, and promoting accountability among public officials.

But how does it work, and how can you make it work for you? That’s the subject of this week’s posting.

First, a few samples of documents released via FOIA and MDR that are currently featured on our Web site:

— A remarkable 2006 “mea culpa” document from the CIA pinning part of the blame for U.S. miscalculations of Saddam Hussein’s WMD capability on intelligence analysts’ failure to look at Iraqi behavior “through an Iraqi prism,” or more specifically from the viewpoint of “a paranoid dictatorship.”

— A copy of one the Cold War’s most controversial nuclear strategy documents – Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59, incorporating concepts that continue to underlie U.S. nuclear policy today.

— Previously classified cable traffic from the State Department describing and assessing the nature of Pakistan’s Haqqani Network – extremely useful background material for understanding the group which the U.S. government last month declared a terrorist entity.

— A compilation of once-secret materials about the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) that runs our spy satellite system. More useful background on a little-known piece of our national security system.

— No longer on our home page but still of genuine significance – numerous records obtained from the State and Defense Departments, CIA and other agencies detailing U.S. awareness of human rights violations by American allies in Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result of their release, these materials have since been used as evidence in the trials of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and other ex-military and political leaders now being held to account for their illegal activities while in power.

So, how can everyone else get access to this kind of information?

The basic approach could hardly be simpler: get the address of the agency you want to write to (we have a list on our site), and send them a letter that says, in essence, “Under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, I hereby request …”

The trick, of course, is in the details. How do you decide what to ask for? How do you frame the request to get the best chance of a meaningful response? Partly, it depends on your interest.

If you want to know about the state of security at our diplomatic facilities around the world (in light of the Benghazi, Libya, attack last month), write to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and ask them for any studies they’ve done in recent years, or specify a region or a particular threat you’d like to learn about.

To borrow from a story in yesterday’s New York Times, if you want to know why the Social Security Administration (SSA) has decided to limit access to its death records (affecting hospital safety assessments and consumer fraud prevention), write to the SSA and ask for records of meetings, memoranda and decisions relating to the decision that, the Times reports, went into effect last November.

Want to know how the Air Force base in your county deals with spilled jet fuel? Ask the Pentagon, the Air Force and the base itself for reports, assessments, environmental impact statements, and anything else you think would reasonably produce the relevant information.

How about finding out about yourself? What does the FBI have on you? Or the SSA? Or the Veterans’ Administration? You can do that, too, by filing a Privacy Act request supplying personal data about yourself which the agencies can use to pull your records (and make sure it’s you who’s asking!). Each agency will have the required info on their site telling you how to make your privacy request.

In short, you can ask for any information from any federal (and most state and local) agencies simply by sending them a letter, or in some cases an email.

Great, right?

Yes, as a matter of fact. It’s an extraordinarily useful law, but most people never think about using it. It’s mostly used by veterans seeking access to their records and rights, corporate officials looking into their competitors’ activities or exploring business opportunities, federal prisoners researching their status and legal options, and, less frequently, journalists and historians.

But of course there are some catches. First, it can take a long, long time to work. While the FOIA says you’re supposed to get a response within 20 working days, that really only means you’ll get an official acknowledgement of your request. Actually obtaining the documents could take months, years, even decades!

Why? Because FOIA offices traditionally are far, far down the priority list for senior agency officials, working with budgets and incentive systems that are wholly inadequate for effective results. Also, the officials who often are asked to search for your documents are usually occupied with what are considered more “mission critical” work, which your requests are taking them away from. And there are no meaningful sanctions for just letting the months go by without fulfilling what is, after all, the legal responsibility to respond.

Also, while the law gives you the right to ask, it doesn’t mean you’ll get what you want! There are 9 different exemptions under which agencies can deny you access to records. These range from dangers to national security, to protection of personal privacy information, to commercial data, to current law enforcement material, and so on.

Those are legitimate reasons, in principle. The challenge comes when you don’t agree with an agency’s view that your request can’t be fulfilled. What do you do then?

Appeal! This is a critical point for anyone seriously pursuing access to government records. The Act includes a provision for going back to the agency and asking them to revisit their decision. It’s important because in most cases the appeal kicks the decision up a level or two within the bureaucracy, where typically someone with more authority or simply experience may decide that the original ruling can be overturned.

The final recourse, if you’re still not satisfied, is to go to court, which FOIA also provides for, although that’s obviously a costly enterprise.

The MDR process follows a different procedure – you can’t sue but you can appeal to the agency, and then you can seek further redress from a special interagency panel that has the authority to overrule the original agency’s determination. That can be very valuable if you’re dealing with an agency like CIA or FBI which has shown a pattern of flatly refusing to release certain kinds of information.

While I’m on MDRs … that is the preferred process for documents that are classified and where you can pinpoint the item precisely — usually by title and date (information you might glean from a newspaper article or a footnote in an official report). The request reads very much the same, but specifies that you’re seeking materials through Mandatory Declassification Review. For a variety of reasons, this approach is also much less costly and it can take far less time to go through all the appeals steps.

The main cost in both approaches comes in the form of agency search fees, which depend on who’s doing the searching. At a typical department like the SSA (according to its site), a search by a lower-level office worker runs $16 an hour, while a senior official’s time costs $59 an hour. Recently, the CIA upped its maximum hourly charge for MDRs to $72. That can be a huge obstacle, which makes it very important to see if you can qualify for a fee waiver. If you’re affiliated with an academic institution or are a member of the news media, you’re generally eligible for a waiver (of search fees, not copying fees). If you’re not, and especially if you work for a commercial corporation, you’re going to have to pay the search costs.

Almost every federal agency has information on their sites for how to file requests (with suggested language), what they’re likely to provide or deny, and what it’ll cost you.

You can also check our organization’s FOIA pages (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/foia.html) or any number of other groups’ sites that work with access to information issues.

The next question, then, is: what are some ways to maximize your effectiveness with FOIA? We’ve been at this for over 25 years, and while there are no magic bullets, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:

— Do your homework (part 1) – know whether the material you want is already available publicly (a lot of material gets posted on agency Web sites, in their Electronic FOIA Reading Room, etc.). FOIA can take a very, very long time, so spare yourself the time and effort if you can.

— Do your homework (part 2) – know what agencies handle the topics you’re interested in; better yet, learn what bureaus or even staff were/are involved, and try to get a sense of what kinds of paperwork those people created. The more precise you can be in identifying the who-where-what, the easier it will be to get your material (and the less you’ll pay in search fees, if you don’t qualify for a waiver).

— Be reasonable and keep it simple: Don’t ask for things that are certain to be too sensitive to be released. For instance, requests that clearly would expose major military secrets are not likely to be very fruitful. Also, don’t ask for “everything on the U.S. occupation of Iraq” — requests that would yield file cabinets worth of paper. Try to pinpoint what you want by topic or date range, e.g. It makes it easier to process and is less likely to make the poor individual assigned to your case throw up his/her hands in frustration.

— Be comprehensive: having said the above, it’s important not to artificially limit your scope. For instance, if you’re looking for material on events similar to Benghazi, try asking not just the State Department but the Defense Department and the U.S. Marine Corps – two other entities directly involved in the security of official American facilities abroad.

— Try an MDR rather than a FOIA: if you know the specific document you want and you know it’s classified. (Check our FOIA site for more about MDRs.)

— Be informative. During the appeals stage, make your best argument about why you think your materials should be released, why it won’t harm national security, etc. And be sure to provide plenty of back-up information to help your case, including copies of articles, or references in books, about your document or the subject matter that will help someone understand better what you’re after (and in some cases make it harder to deny the existence of a document, or claim that it needs to remain classified).

— Be patient! Know that it may take many months.

— Be cooperative. Remember that regardless of the fact that you’re exercising your legal right, you’re still taking up the time of one or more people who (rightly or wrongly) may look at your request as a major intrusion on their day. Be ready to work with them to come up with a more feasible request, if asked, or to be flexible in whatever ways you’re willing to consider.

— But be persistent, too. Don’t give up. And don’t think it’s not worth it. Our system depends on people taking the initiative. If someone doesn’t ask for something there’s a good chance it may never find its way out into the public domain.

These are some of the things it helps to know when filing FOIAs. For a lot more detail, history, facts, and suggestions, check our FOIA pages, including “Effective FOIA Requesting for Everyone – A National Security Archive Guide,” available for free on our site.

Happy hunting!

(Next week, a look at how our staff librarians prepare our highly indexed document publications for the Digital National Security Archive.)

Malcolm Byrne
Deputy Director, Research Director
The National Security Archive
at George Washington University

Intro to the National Security Archive at George Washington University

This is the first in a series of guest posts from the National Security Archive, a non-governmental research organization, archive and publisher of declassified documents. Thanks to James Jacobs for the invitation to write about the Archive. Over the next 3-4 posts, I’ll describe the organization and some of our projects, starting today with a bit of history about our founding and mission in life. Meanwhile, we invite any and all to visit us at www.nsarchive.org or in person at Gelman Library on the campus of George Washington University.

* * * * *

For anyone who loves anniversaries, this month is a biggie. Fifty years ago the world survived one of the seminal events of the nuclear age — the Cuban missile crisis. I mention it because almost from the very start, the National Security Archive’s been an active promoter of studying the crisis (we’ll have a series of postings of the latest findings on our site in the coming weeks), and it makes for a good case study of what our organization’s mission is and how we go about our work.

(Today I’ll touch on our substantive projects; later posts will deal with other Archive activities.)

In 1985, the Archive officially opened its doors to the public as an innovative non-profit research institute and library facility focused on making available the underlying government documentation all of us as citizens need to understand what our elected officials (and permanent bureaucracies!) are doing in our name. That basic mission reflected the mix of individuals who over time in the early 1980s coalesced around the idea of forming such an organization — journalists (Scott Armstrong, Washington Post; Raymond Bonner, New York Times; Strobe Talbott, Time; and others), scholars (John Lewis Gaddis, Catherine Kelleher, Ernest May, Anne Cahn, John Prados, among others), public interest group leaders (John Shattuck, Mort Halperin, Margaret Carroll, and others), former officials (Anthony Lake, Walt Slocombe, Joseph Onek, etc.), and even current members of Congress like Jim Moody (D-WI). Each in their own profession had an interest in following how the government worked, and each understood the power of the historical record in educating the public.

Our main tool for breaking loose documentation was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — passed in 1966 and later amended — which in principle grants anyone access to the inner workings of the Executive Branch. (States have their own version of the law.) Building on donations by Armstrong, Bonner and many others, the Archive began to develop a large repository of declassified records, which has always been open to researchers at our facility (originally at the Brookings Institution, but since 1995 at GWU). Right now, our holdings total somewhere around 8 million pages and run the gamut of foreign policy topics covering the Cold War and its aftermath.

How do we organize our work? Here’s where the Cuban missile crisis comes in. Generally, our projects center around the efforts of a staff analyst whose job it is to become an expert not only in the history of a given subject but, critically, in the way that subject was handled by the U.S. government. Since accumulating the key paperwork underlying U.S. policy is our goal, you have to know how it flowed within the halls of government, especially when it would be utterly impractical (not to say impossible) to expect to get your hands on more than a tiny fraction of the millions of pages federal agencies produce on these kinds of topics in the course of their activities.

In the Cuba case, we had a couple of analysts who filed FOIAs for critical material, such as Kennedy’s correspondence with Khrushchev, CIA studies, and so on. As you might expect, they initially got stonewalled from time to time on much of the more sensitive items, and had to file appeals, as provided for under the Act. Part of the problem was that agencies claimed they simply couldn’t locate the files. That seemed hard to imagine, given the high level of involvement (the president and his men) during the crisis. It was only after an active round of additional research and interviews with a range of outside experts including former officials that it began to become clear that much of the most important material had been removed from its normal archival locations on orders of Lyndon Johnson, who decided that if another similar crisis erupted one day it would be a good idea to have the record available so that future presidents and officials could study the Cuban crisis as an example. From there it took a bit more effort to determine that the materials had been stored away in a special office inside the State Department, but once my colleagues were able to provide that information (down to the level of box titles) to the Department, it removed a major obstacle to getting the documents out into the public domain.

But a second hurdle remained — one that anyone who’s ever researched recent foreign policy or intelligence records knows all too well: how to overcome restrictions on access to classified information? This is something our analysts deal with every day. Protecting reasonably classified information, especially if it concerns American foreign relations, is one of several legal justifications under FOIA for withholding records from the public. Sometimes the official reasoning is entirely understandable — for instance if it relates to the specifics of manufacturing a nuclear bomb, or to planned troop deployments. But bureaucrats and politicians being who they are, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone that often the rationales employed to keep our history hidden are either flimsy or entirely bogus. Scholars and journalists confront these problems all the time, and it frequently takes persistent effort to argue one’s case through the appeals process to a point where an agency will reverse its earlier denial. This was another reason for creating the Archive — to have an institution in place that could afford to wait the months, years and — yes — even decades it sometimes takes for requests to be fulfilled. (We’ve had numerous requests take 10, 15, 20 or even more years to be completed.)

When it came to arguing our case on the missile crisis, we eventually were able to take advantage of some of the monumental political changes that had taken place around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the (putative) end of the Cold War. As former Soviet archives began to open a crack, and as Boris Yeltsin learned the power of documents as a weapon to expose the misdeeds of his former Communist Party cronies, some astonishing materials from “the other side” of the Cold War started to emerge. Among these were records of leadership meetings, correspondence and transcripts of conversations with foreign heads of state. These included some dealing with what the Soviets used to call “the Caribbean crisis.” Since (a) our main global enemy no longer existed, and (b) its successor regime was releasing some of the same kinds of materials we and other researchers were seeking from the U.S., it was possible argue with U.S. agencies that there was no longer a need to protect once-sensitive documentation about the inner debates of the ExComm, photos from U-2 flights over Cuba, and reams of intelligence about events that, after all, had occurred 30 years earlier.

Through sheer persistence and a little creative thinking, the Archive was able to accumulate an extraordinary record of the crisis that has since become part of the larger public record amassed by scholars and journalists around the world.

Yet, one of the lessons one learns fairly soon in this line of work is that government records — surprise — do not tell the whole story! A document is only as accurate and reliable as its author, who may or may not have had access to good information, and may have been influenced by motives we can sometimes only guess at. How then to get past this basic historiographical challenge? By asking the people who wrote or received those documents!

But here we were able to go about that task with a twist. It was our tremendously good fortune in the course of our work on the missile crisis to come into contact, and quickly partner with, an unusual husband-and-wife team — James G. Blight and janet [sic] M. Lang, then of Harvard’s Kennedy School (now at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Ontario, Canada). Neither of these two were originally trained historians (he is a psychologist, she is an epidemiologist!), but together they came up with a methodology for studying recent historical events that has produced some extraordinarily important results. The approach is called Critical Oral History and it’s complex enough to have had books written about it, so I’ll only give a thumbnail sketch here. It involves bringing to the table (literally) a group of individuals (often former antagonists) who participated in the events under scrutiny, adding to the mix a small contingent of scholars who know the literature, and underpinning the exercise with declassified documents from the time. The “veterans” are there to discuss among themselves how they viewed the events at the time, what they sought to achieve, what they believed their adversaries were up to, and so on. The scholars and documents are there to refresh memories and keep the discussion anchored in the facts insofar as that’s possible.

This was the methodology Jim and janet — usually with the Archive’s help on the document front (and at times in other ways) — used to explore the missile crisis at a depth and level of detail not otherwise attainable before then. Starting in 1987 and running initially through 1992, they organized a series of conference in Cambridge, Mass.; the Caribbean; Moscow; and Havana itself, at which the participants included Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Ted Sorenson and additional U.S. luminaries from the period; Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, his deputy Georgi Kornienko, long-time Ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin, and various other Soviet diplomats, generals and intelligence experts; and, from Cuba, Fidel Castro plus several of his senior advisers. As a principal part of the Archive’s contribution, we were able to gather a pretty rich array of declassified records not just from the United States but from literally all over the world — Russia, the Soviet bloc, Cuba, China, Brazil, and elsewhere. As a result of these accumulated resources (human and documentary), the sessions produced immediate headlines, and in the longer term fundamentally changed the way the missile crisis is understood — literally rewriting the text books.

Here are a few of the revelations:

– The U.S. did not know at the time that tactical nuclear weapons were on the island that might well have been used in the event of an American invasion, almost certainly touching off a nuclear war
– Washington had no idea that 43,000 Soviet troops and thousands more civilians were in Cuba by late October 1962, numbers that significantly raised the likelihood of a major retaliation in case of a U.S. invasion
– The Americans were unaware of the importance of Castro’s role and the pressure he put on Soviet leaders to sharpen their responses to U.S. actions, including emotionally advising Khrushchev at the height of the crisis that if the U.S. invaded the island Moscow should deploy its missiles before the Americans had the chance to use theirs
– Soviet subs around the quarantine line carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes that one captain tried to launch but failed when he couldn’t persuade other key holders on board to go along
– A major cause of the Soviet captain’s motivation was the fear of being under attack after the U.S. Navy, unaware of the nuclear-tipped torpedoes, began harassing the subs by tossing the equivalent of grenades onto them
– Ultimately, the crisis was not resolved by dint of nuclear superiority and boldly staring down the adversary — which was the original accepted wisdom; it involved a willingness to make a deal, to compromise, as Kennedy did in secretly offering a trade of the Cuban missiles for the Jupiter missiles in Turkey

To make revelations like these broadly available, the Archive does a number of things. First, we make our materials accessible to researchers at no charge (except photocopying) at our GWU facility. Another avenue is through a subscription product of highly curated selections — the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) — via the publisher ProQuest. We also publish shorter compilations of materials as books. And of course we post selected items on our Web site (www.nsarchive.org). We currently have 391 “Electronic Briefing Books” of documents on newsworthy topics on our site.

(I should clarify — and emphasize — that all these publications contain no editorializing from us on U.S. government policy. We’re a non-partisan 501(c)(3) group and the only issues we take a stand on are freedom of information and the principle of open government access.)

The Cuban missile crisis project in many ways became a model for our other historical documentation projects at the National Security Archive, including studies of U.S. policy toward the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and the superpower rivalry, a series of crises in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and more. Most of the basic stories of these projects are available on our site and, as mentioned, the underlying documentation we and our partners and colleagues around the world have collected is also available here in Washington, D.C.

Next week I’ll talk (maybe at a bit shorter length!) about our freedom of information activities. If you have any questions as we go along, don’t hesitate to write to me at mbyrne@gwu.edu.

Malcolm Byrne
Deputy Director, Research Director
The National Security Archive
at George Washington University

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