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Breaking down the Department of the Interior’s proposed changes to FOIA. COMMENTS DUE 1/28/2019

Russ Kick of AltGov2 is again on the FOIA case. This time he’s analyzed the Department of Interior’s proposed changes to their FOIA regulations (and helpfully cobbled together the current regulations with DoI’s proposed changes). Comments on the proposed changes can be submitted electronically by JANUARY 28, 2019. Here’s the current regulations and the proposed rules changes posted to regulations.gov.

Here’s my own take on this. Department of Interior’s reason for updating its FOIA regulations is that they’ve had “Exponential increases in requests and litigation.” From Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to FY 2018, incoming FOIA requests to the Department increased 30 percent (from 6,428 to over 8,350). So it would make sense that they’d want to update their regulations to deal with the exponential increase in requests. But instead of requesting more staff to deal with the increase in requests or look for ways to proactively release more records, their proposed changes:

  1. look to expand the definition and reasoning of “burdensome” requests that can be denied. “The bureau will not honor a request that requires an unreasonably burdensome search or requires the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”
  2. place monthly limits on the number of requests per month from frequent requesters.
  3. Make it more confusing and difficult to submit requests (eg it’s unclear whether requests will be accepted via email in the new regs).
  4. No longer refer or forward mistakenly directed requests. “A request to a particular bureau or a particular bureau component (for example, a request addressed to a regional or field office) will be presumed to seek only records from that particular bureau or particular component and will not be forwarded to another bureau or component.”
  5. Change “time limits” to “time frames,” making the time to fulfill requests more squishy and undefined.

There’s probably more buried in this request. Check out Russ’ analysis at MuckRock. And PLEASE send comments to Department of Interior about their proposed changes. Comments on the proposed changes can be submitted electronically by JANUARY 28, 2019.

The Department of the Interior wants to drastically change how it deals with Freedom of Information Act requests. To do that, it had to make a proposal, published in the Federal Register, that the public can comment on for 30 days. In theory, it has to consider this input before finalizing any changes to its FOIA regulations.

That proposal was published on December 28th, 2018, which is 1) a Friday 2) in the middle of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day 3) during a government shutdown. Any one of those is a tried-and-true way to slip something past the public, but all three simultaneously? That is the trifecta of bureaucratic underhandedness.

So, now that the holidays are behind us for another year, let’s take a look at Interior’s FOIA wishlist, which is primarily designed to hobble requesters and solidify the department’s power. (To make it easier to see the many changes Interior wants, I’ve created a redline version of their currently FOIA regulations, with added language in bold and deletions in strikethrough, which you can see here.)

via Breaking down the Department of the Interior’s proposed changes to FOIA • MuckRock.

Could DoD IG Reports be made “private” due to Trump’s off-hand remark?

Steven Aftergood over at Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News project writes today that President Trump recently commented off-handedly that reports from the Department of Defense’ Inspector General should be private and not publicly accessible. It’s unclear if this off-the-cuff comment will lead to less public access to these important reports, but Aftergood notes that “secrecy in the Department of Defense has increased noticeably in the Trump Administration” but that the Pentagon still publishes a massive amount of information. What is clear is that this one small comment could have huge implications going forward from “For Official Use Only” markings to restrict access to information to perhaps an erosion of the FOIA process. This is certainly something to keep an eye on.

The recurring dispute over the appropriate degree of secrecy in the Department of Defense arose in a new form last week when President Trump said that certain audits and investigations that are performed by the DoD Inspector General should no longer be made public.

“We’re fighting wars, and they’re doing reports and releasing it to the public? Now, the public means the enemy,” the President said at a January 2 cabinet meeting. “The enemy reads those reports; they study every line of it. Those reports should be private reports. Let him do a report, but they should be private reports and be locked up.”

It is not clear what the President had in mind. Did he have reason to think that US military operations had been damaged by publication of Inspector General reports? Was he now directing the Secretary of Defense to classify such reports, regardless of their specific contents? Was he suggesting the need for a new exemption from the Freedom of Information Act to prevent their disclosure?

Or was this simply an expression of presidential pique with no practical consequence? Thus far, there has been no sign of any change to DoD publication policy in response to the President’s remarks.

via Trump Says DoD IG Reports Should Be “Private” – Federation Of American Scientists.

Patrice McDermott posts Draft letter re DOI records disposition request to NARA. Requests comments

We posted about the Dept of Interior records schedule request to NARA and have been actively working on this issue for a few weeks now. Patrice McDermott, Director of Government Information Watch — many of you will have known Patrice from her ALA Washington Office days or laster as director of Open The Government — just posted the request below to govdoc-l so I thought I’d share beyond the govt documents library community. Please check out the draft letter that Patrice and several others in the FOIA/open govt communities have penned. Send any comments or concerns her way. And if you’d like to copy/paste anything from her letter — or from Stanford UL’s letter to AOTUS Ferriero for that matter — for your own comment to NARA, please do so BY NOVEMBER 26!

Here is a DRAFT letter/comments to NARA. Many thanks to the folks who have been working on this – this letter draws heavily on your work.

Thoughts, edits – and specific concerns about particular sets of records – welcomed. Please send to me [email protected]

It dawned on me that T’giving week is almost upon us… I plan to send this Friday 23 November. It is open to both organizational and individual signatories.

Background:

As you may know, the DOI has put in a request to NARA for disposition authority for a large # of record groups. Disposition does not equal immediate destruction; mostly the records would be marked Temporary — with ‘disposal’ dates that vary greatly based on the records, what they document, etc. Very few govt records (1-3%, according to NARA) are designated as Permanent/Archival.

The request is confusing to read & follow because DOI — following NARA guidance of recent years — has moved what used to be discrete series of records with discrete records schedules (as permanent or temporary) into what are being called ‘big buckets.’ The DOI request is essentially cross-walking discrete records series to their new bucket. And made the request for all of the buckets at one time.

The volume aside, there are a number of concerning aspects to this request.

I pulled together an annotated version of the NARA appraisal memo to get a handle on what was requested – and provisionally approved by NARA. I highlighted language in the Appraisal Memo (Blue=Good retention; Green = NARA comments worth noting; Orang(ish) = Concerning), and indicated the #s of Records Groups (not #s of records) covered in each NARA appraisal entry.

One aspect that has troubled me is from DOI’s Request for Records Disposition Authority

Methodology:

This change to a departmental schedule, from individual bureau schedules, moves disposition authority for Record Groups 022 (FWS), 049 (BLM), 057 (USGS), 075 (BIA), 079 (NPS), 115 (BOR), 471 (OSMRE),
473 (BSEE), and 589 (BOEMRE) to 048. (which is Office of the Secretary (OS) – Record Group 048)

Regardless of who the Secretary of Interior is or may be, it gives me pause to put authority for requesting disposal for these sensitive records in the office of a political appointee. So, there is a potential question for NARA (or its Hill overseers).

I am really troubled by the repeated language — by NARA — about “interest to NARA Researchers” (as opposed to??), and that records “do not document significant actions of federal officials”.

The legal definition of Records (44 U.S.C. Chapter 33)§ 3301) is:

RECORDS DEFINED.-
(1) IN GENERAL.-As used in this chapter, the term “records”-
(A) includes all recorded information, regardless of form or characteristics, made or received by a Federal agency under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the United States Government or because of the informational value of data in them

I would welcome your thoughts on particular sets of records/buckets and how they have been appraised — where the appraisal may fail to address the research/legal/etc needs of other communities (other than “NARA researchers”), where data, on which ongoing datasets are built, might be irretrievably destroyed, etc.

Holes in History: The Dept of Interior request to destroy records

[Editor’s note: please scroll to the end of this post for a sample letter to submit to NARA. Thanks!]

[Update: 10/30: I added another point about disposition authority. JRJ]

Remember, we have until November 26, 2018, to make comments to the National Archives. (Be sure to say that you’re referring to DAA-0048-2015-0003.)

  • [email protected]
  • fax: 301-837-3698
  • NARA (ACRA), 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park MD 20740-6001.
  • Last week, Russ Kick announced that The Department of the Interior (DOI) was requesting permission from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to destroy documents about oil and gas leases, mining, dams, wells, timber sales, marine conservation, fishing, endangered species, non-endangered species, critical habitats, land acquisition, and lots more. The request includes documents from every agency within the DOI, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish & Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and others. Please read Kick’s whole post for context and comments.

    This is a massive proposal. As Kick notes:

    This covers already-existing documents going back more than 50 years. Thousands of cubic feet of paper documents. Gigabytes of digital documents. Besides existing documents, as usual the proposed schedule will also apply to all future documents created in these categories (whether on paper or born digital).

    (more…)

    NARA embroiled in politics surrounding documents re Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh. The public loses.

    I’ve been trying to get my head around the very public wrangling of the release of archival records relating to Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The National Archives (NARA) is in the process of releasing “Approximately 900,000 pages of email and paper records were requested by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Charles Grassley.” But democratic Senators Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer are accusing NARA of withholding documents relating to Kavanaugh’s time as Staff Secretary under President George W. Bush. NARA has responded by saying that it is “longstanding and consistent practice” to respond only to requests from the Chair of Congressional Committees. Senate democrats have submitted FOIA requests for the remaining documents and are threatening to sue NARA if the FOIA request is denied.

    Regardless of how many documents are released and made available to the Judiciary Committee, Chairman Grassley has scheduled the committee hearing for September 4, 2018, long before NARA says it will be able to finish its work. NARA says it expects to complete its review of the first roughly 300,000 pages by August 20, and the remaining 600,000 pages by the end of October. It’s unclear whether a lawsuit to release additional records will cause the committee’s work to be postponed.

    Lost in all of this political wrangling (on top of the political wrangling whereby republicans blocked President Obama from nominating someone to the Supreme Court during his term) is the fact that the American public, regardless of political leaning, is losing out on really knowing the person being nominated for a lifetime position on the US Supreme Court, effecting the US political system for at least a generation to come.

    Politics is a vicious game, but the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice shouldn’t be left to the will of pure partisanship. The public needs to have access to ALL of the records regarding Judge Cavanaugh’s public work, and the committee should have time to “advise and consent,” to understand the nominee’s record, deliberate, and appoint judges.


    Feinstein wrote to archivist David Ferriero in a letter obtained by CNN on Wednesday, criticizing him for his narrow view of the law used to justify denying Democrats the documents. Democrats are set to begin meetings with Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee to the high court, after the August recess.

    “Under your overly restrictive reading of the Presidential Records Act, minority members of the Senate Judiciary Committee now have no greater right to Mr. Kavanaugh’s records than members of the press and the public,” the California senator wrote.

    “I ask that you reconsider the position set forth in your August 2 letter,” she continued. “These records are crucially important to the Senate’s understanding of Mr. Kavanaugh’s full record, and withholding them prevents the minority from satisfying its constitutional obligation to provide advice and consent on his nomination.”

    Democrats are pushing for the federal government to release all documents created during Kavanaugh’s time at the White House, roughly three years during the George W. Bush administration when he served as staff secretary. Republicans have accused Democrats of seeking to delay Kavanaugh’s nomination with the request.

    via Feinstein ‘alarmed’ National Archives is withholding Kavanaugh documents | TheHill.

    On July 31, 2018, the National Archives received a request from the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Ranking Minority Member Senator Dianne Feinstein and the other minority members of the committee for Judge Kavanaugh’s Staff Secretary records, which number the equivalent of several million pages. However, this request does not meet the requirements of section 2205(2)(C) of the Presidential Records Act, as the Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero explained in an August 2, 2018, letter to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. On August 6, 2018, Senator Feinstein asked the Archivist to reconsider this position, and the Archivist responded on August 10, 2018.

    As noted in both letters, since the Presidential Records Act was enacted in 1978, the National Archives longstanding and consistent practice has been to respond only to requests from the Chair of Congressional Committees, regardless of which political party is in power. For the same reason that the National Archives was not able to respond to Senator Feinstein’s request, the agency also declined to respond to the requests by Republican Ranking Members for Presidential records during President Obama’s Administration.

    via National Archives Works to Release Records Related to Judge Kavanaugh

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