NY Daily News reports special operations commander secretly moved Osama bin Laden raid records to sidestep FOIA

News organizations are calling out the nation’s top special operations commander for a secret move they say sidesteps federal rules and perhaps the Freedom of Information Act, as well, according to New York Daily News.

Adm. William McRaven secretly ordered military files about the Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden to be moved from Defense Department computers and sent to the CIA, where they can be better shielded from disclosure obligations of public records law.

The CIA has special authority to withhold “operational files” in ways that cannot be challenged in federal court, the Daily News said. On the other hand, the Defense Department can be contested in court and forced to turn over non-sensitive portions of the records.

The move was described briefly in a draft report by the Pentagon’s inspector general last week, but CIA spokesman Preston Golson told the Daily News it’s “absolutely false” that the records were moved to sidestep the FOIA. Instead, he said, the files were moved because the raid was led by then-CIA Director Leon Panetta. A spokesman for the admiral declined to comment.

Federal rules require the National Archives and Records Administration to approve government record transfers from one executive agency to another, and a spokeswoman for the Archives told the Daily News they did not receive any request to transfer these records. But the spokeswoman said the Archives understands the military records belong to the CIA, so they do not require permission to transfer.

Even so, open government advocates are frustrated that transferring the records allows the Pentagon to sidestep a records request filed by The Associated Press more than two years ago because now they can tell the AP they couldn’t find any documents inside the Defense Department.

This could be a new strategy for federal agencies hoping to hold sensitive information out of public view, according to Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private research institute at George Washington University.

“Welcome to the shell game in place of open government,” Blanton told the Daily News. “Guess which shell the records are under. If you guess the right shell, we might show them to you. It’s ridiculous.”

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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