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Justice Dept annual FOIA summary report miscalculates FOIA release rate

Unredacted, the National Security Archive’s blog, analyzed the latest annual agency FOIA report from the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), and found that the report over calculated and misrepresented the government’s release rate of FOIA requests. The FY2019 summary report said that agencies had achieved a government-wide release rate of 94.4% (up from 93.8% last year), but the Natl Security Archive’s analysis and math — when taking into account things like counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases, and excluding more than 270,700 requests denied (often improperly) over fees, referrals, “no records” responses, and requests “improper for other reasons” — showed that a more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others “hovers between 50 and 60 percent.”

That’s not good. OIP and agencies across the federal government MUST do better, must conduct more efficient searches, must find more ways to proactively post documents online etc. The 2018-2020 FOIA Advisory Committee to the National Archives (of which I’m a member) has some very good recommendations in their draft report for making FOIA better. This is the peoples’ information. While there are legitimate reasons for limiting access to *some* information (see the 9 FOIA exemptions), agencies have to stop using bureaucratic impediments to block, deter, and obfuscate the public’s right to know what their government is doing in their name.

The FY2019 summary report argues that agencies have achieved a government-wide release rate of 94.4% (up from 93.8% last year). OIP calculates that overly-generous figure by counting nearly entirely redacted documents as successful partial releases (see above for an example), and excluding more than 270,700 requests denied (often improperly) over fees, referrals, “no records” responses, and requests “improper for other reasons.” A more accurate release rate calculated by the Archive and others hovers between 50 and 60 percent.

Other highlights from the report include:

  • The government received 858,952 FOIA requests in FY 2019, down slightly from FY2018’s all-time high of 863,729 requests.
  • Exemption 7(c) and 7(e) account for more than 50% of all exemptions applied to denied records or portions of records.
  • Backlogged requests have decreased from 130,718 in FY2018 to 120,436 in FY2019.
    • As a reminder, in 2008 President Obama instructed every agency to reduce its FOIA backlog by ten percent every year. As my dear former colleague Nate Jones notes in his article, FOIA: A Colossus Under Assault, only one agency did this – the Department of Health and Human Services.
  • Four agencies account for 65% of all referrals (and associated delays): DOD, DOJ, DHS, and CIA.
  • The appeals backlog continues to grow – up to 5,087.
    • Don’t let this deter you from appealing, though, as agencies release improperly withheld information on appeal at least a third of the time.
  • Agencies reported collecting $2,547,638 in FOIA fees – totaling less than .5% of total FOIA costs. These fees are not recouped by the agency, but are instead deposited in the Treasury Department’s general fund, making it all the more frustrating to see agency’s use “fee bullying” techniques to intimidate requesters into dropping or unnecessarily narrowing their requests.
  • Agencies spent nearly $38,842,948 in FOIA litigation. Put another way, agencies lost 15x as much money fighting bad FOIA decisions in court as they collected in FOIA fees.

via OIP Report Misleadingly Touts a Government-Wide FOIA Release Rate of 94.4%, Continued Surveillance of Black Lives Matter, and More: FRINFORMSUM 6/4/2020 | UNREDACTED.

Flynn Documents Released

Trump blasts ‘scam’ Michael Flynn investigation after new FBI documents released By https://www.politico.com/staff/quint-forgey 04/30/2020 07:50 AM EDT, Updated: 04/30/2020 08:59 AM EDT
https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/30/trump-blasts-scam-michael-flynn-investigation-after-new-fbi-documents-released-225509

“President Donald Trump vented outrage Thursday over the FBI’s treatment of Michael Flynn following the release of government records and recent media reports regarding the bureau’s 2017 investigation into his former national security adviser. In a remarkable series of nearly 30 tweets and retweets issued within a 12-hour time frame – which came as the number of Americans killed by the coronavirus surged beyond 60,000 – Trump excoriated former FBI Director James Comey, questioned the bureau’s current leadership, and fiercely defended Flynn and other associates ensnared by the far-reaching Russia probe that consumed the early years of his administration. ”

Documents show FBI debated how to handle investigation of Michael Flynn. By JOSH GERSTEIN, KYLE CHENEY and NATASHA BERTRAND 04/29/2020 09:34 PM EDT https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/29/fbi-michael-flynn-224311

‘Newly released documents about the origins of the criminal case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn show that FBI officials feared that the new Trump White House might view the bureau as “playing games” if it sought to interview him without disclosing exactly what it was up to.’ “The four pages of records provided to Flynn’s defense attorneys last week and unsealed on Wednesday by a federal judge reflect internal brainstorming at the FBI in January 2017 about how to approach the politically explosive investigation into Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador weeks earlier, during the presidential transition.”

Documents: nts:https://www.courtlistener.com/recap/gov.uscourts.dcd.191592/gov.uscourts.dcd.191592.188.0_8.pdf

co-published on govdoc-l and freegovinfo.info.

FOIA Advisory Committee 2018-2020 term recommendations coming into focus

The most recent quarterly meeting of NARA’s FOIA Advisory Committee (of which I’m a member) occurred last friday (12/6/19). You can watch the entire meeting as it was live-streamed on NARA’s YouTube channel (below).

I consider myself fortunate to be able to work with this committee — 1/2 of its members are FOIA officers at federal agencies, and 1/2 are from various parts of the requester community: academics, lawyers, FOIA activists and myself the lone librarian. The committee works to identify challenges that exist with the FOIA and then issues official recommendations to improve FOIA at the end of each term. For the 2018-2020 term, the committee has broken out into three subcommittees — Records Management (of which I’m a member), Time/Volume, and Vision — and we’ve been working diligently on recommendations for our final report. You can see in the links below what each of the subcommittees has chosen to focus in on to make FOIA better.

The committee is currently working on quite a few sticky issues, not least of which are “release to one release to all” — which was developed by the Obama administration in 2016 but is still “under consideration” by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice — as well as the 2 issues closest to my librarian heart, a central FOIA repository and FOIA documents in both human-readable and machine-actionable formats (draft recommendations 8 and 9 of the records management subcommittee).

I’d like to give a shout-out to tireless public open government advocate Alex Howard (formerly from Sunlight Foundation) who has shown up at each of our meetings and has given substantive input, comments and critiques during the public comment portion of each meeting and via live-blog and twitter during each meeting. We should have more advocates like Alex who not only keeps the government’s feet to the open-government fire but also gives positive, actionable policy and technical advice to achieve real advances in FOIA and government transparency generally.



In December 2016, President Obama also ordered the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make FOIA a “cross agency priority” goal. Unfortunately, the Trump administration removed the Cross Agency Priority Goal for FOIA on Performance.gov without notice.

An administration that’s serious about improving public access to our records and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and public information would restore said goal, perhaps as a commitment in some sort of comprehensive “national action plan on open government.”

While the FOIA Advisory Committee is full of people working in good faith to improve how sunshine in government works for the public, this administration has reversed or neglected many of the open government policies or programs of the past decade and weaponized transparency through selective disclosures.

As has been the case for years, it falls to Congress to perform oversight of the FOIA and ensure that public access to public information continues to improve through implementation of the FOIA reforms President Obama signed into law in December 2016 and the open government bill President Trump signed into law in January 2019.

via US FOIA Advisory Committee considers recommendations to part the rising curtains of secrecy | E Pluribus Unum.

NARA releases Digital Preservation Framework for public comment

Photograph of World’s First Computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator. National Archives Identifier 594262 The Archivist of the US (AOTUS) released NARA’s plan for a Digital Preservation Framework consisting of a “Risk and Prioritization Matrix” and 15 File Format Preservation Action Plans. NARA is asking that the public submit comments on NARA’s GitHub site through November 1, 2019.

In particular, we are hoping to get feedback on the following topics:

  • What revisions can you suggest to the proposed processing and preservation actions for the formats?
  • Are the Essential Characteristics for each record type comprehensive enough for digital preservation?
  • Are the proposed preservation actions for the formats technically appropriate?
  • Are there appropriate tools for processing and preservation of specific formats that we do not have listed?
  • What can you suggest in terms of appropriate public access versions of the formats?
  • Are there other formats we haven’t identified that need plans?

You can use the issues feature in Github to leave a comment or question or start a discussion. Read more about how to contribute here. So, go ahead, start digging in to your favorite file format and tell NARA your thoughts.

Today NARA is releasing the entirety of our digital preservation framework for public comment. This digital preservation framework consists of our approach to determining risks faced by electronic files, and our plans for preserving different types of file formats. The public is encouraged to join the discussion, September 16 through November 1, 2019, on GitHub.

via Digital Preservation Framework Released for Public Comment – AOTUS.

Senate introduces legislation to clarify presumption of disclosure in FOIA

This just in from our friends at MuckRock: Senate introduces legislation to clarify presumption of disclosure in FOIA. This new bill will will protect public access to information from private entities that do business with the government following the *terrible* Supreme Court decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader, which overturned more than 40 years of FOIA precedent by letting corporations decide whether the public was entitled to access government spending information. Also, according to OpenTheGovernment’s analysis, the bill addresses “…the EPA’s move to undermine FOIA by issuing regulations, without the legally required public notice and comment period, that appear to allow officials to withhold portions of documents as “not responsive” to a FOIA request, despite a federal court ruling forbidding the practice.”

The “Open and Responsive Government Act of 2019” would address limits to FOIA being imposed by regulatory agencies, in addition to those recently created by the Supreme Court’s decision in Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. That decision allowed for a broad interpretation of confidentiality under the FOIA’s b(4) trade secret exemption, and transparency advocates are confident the ruling, if allowed to stand, would severely limit access to government dealings with private companies.

“Last month’s Supreme Court overturned more than 40 years of FOIA precedent, and will force government agencies to withhold large swaths of information about private contractors and other companies who do business with government,” said Emily Manna, policy analyst at Open The Government. This bill would return us to the status quo, and restore the public’s right to access this critical information.”

The proposed amendments would expand the language of the “trade secrets” exemption to explicitly require a standard of substantial harm for the nondisclosure of commercial information. That standard seemed to have been set by the case National Parks & Conservation Ass’n v. Morton, but the Supreme Court’s recent ruling did not acknowledge it.

via Senate introduces legislation to clarify presumption of disclosure in FOIA • MuckRock.

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