Posts Tagged ‘DOJ’


FOI Update: DOJ hasn’t questioned a FOIA exemption in four years, didn’t respond for four months

Four seems to be the magic number for the Department of Justice.

The department told congressional investigators on June 10 it hasn’t questioned an agency’s decision to withhold information under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption for four years, and when confronted about its own outdated FOIA regulations, it didn’t respond for four months, according to the Washington Free Beacon.

A National Security Archive government-wide audit in December revealed that 56 federal agencies failed to update their FOIA regulations after Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memorandum requesting an update in 2009.

Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) even noted the DOJ’s own regulations have not been updated since 2003.

But when Issa and Cummings called this to the DOJ’s attention in a February letter, the DOJ did not respond until June.

Principal deputy assistant attorney general Peter Kadzik wrote a letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on June 10, saying the DOJ has not determined any FOIA exemptions improper since the Obama administration’s first year in office.

But the Free Beacon notes that Kadzik’s letter did not acknowledge Issa and Cumming’s findings that in 2011 alone, the DOJ fully denied 30,000 FOIA requests and partially denied another 171,000 requests. It also used exemption 5 to deny more FOIA requests even though the Justice Department itself notes that this exemption is riddled with “somewhat opaque language.”

An August 2012 Washington Post analysis showed the number of FOIA requests fully denied due to exemptions rose more than 10 percent last year, from 22,834 to 25,636. But free information isn’t the only thing at stake when the government issues exemptions, tax payers dollars are often dished out to cover costly legal fees when news organizations and other information requesters file FOIA lawsuits against the federal government.

The Free Beacon reports that the number of FOIA lawsuits has “increased dramatically under the Obama administration,” even compared to his tight-lipped predecessor.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) compared the last two years of President George W. Bush’s second term to the last two years of President Obama’s first term and found that FOIA lawsuits increased by 28 percent. The DOJ alone faced 50 percent more FOIA lawsuits, according to TRAC reports.

But in his letter to Issa and Cummings, Kadzik defended federal agencies, saying they have taken  “concrete steps to improve their FOIA administration.” The Free Beacon notes that the DOJ plans to publish its new FOIA guidelines later this year.

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. – See more at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi

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FOI Fail of the Week: Obama admin. pushes forward with another leaker case

Despite the watering down of the whistleblower case against former National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake from felony charges to a single misdemeanor, the Obama administration is pressing forward with its next court case against a leaker.

The next target for the Justice Department is Stephen Kim, a South Korean arms expert accused of violating the Espionage Act by providing classified information to Fox News.

A New York Times article outlines the case.

Prior to being charged by DOJ, Kim spent years discussing the potential threats posed by North Korea with various government officials.

The DOJ does not seem to be considering changes to its campaign against leakers despite the collapse of its high-profile case against Drake.

Kim is one of five leaker cases the government has pursued thus far, compared to three in all previous presidential administrations combined. There is also an ongoing grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks, the group responsible for publishing U.S. diplomatic cables and other secret documents online.

Kim began speaking about North Korea-related issues with Fox News reporter James Rosen in March 2009 after a press officer with the State Department asked him to do so.

Kim sent some emails using the pseudonym “Leo Grace.”

In June 2009 Rosen reported that the CIA had learned that, in response to a United Nations resolution expressing disapproval for North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, the government centered in the national capital of Pyongyang would probably react by increasing the number of tests and related activities.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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FOI DAILY DOSE: Disciplined cops’ names withheld in Seattle, N.H. city’s lawsuits go public

Secret in Seattle

Despite dissension from the city government, the Seattle Police Department is keeping the names of officers who’ve faced disciplinary action secret.

A labor arbitrator demanded the names be withheld at the behest of the city’s police officers union.

The City of Seattle said it may pursue a court appeal of the decision. The case may depend on the Police Department’s legal responsibilities under Washington disclosure laws.

The department is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for its treatment of minorities and use of force.

It has also been criticized for being too secretive and has been disclosing more information on internal investigations in an attempt to shore up public trust.

Keeping the names of officers disciplined for misconduct, however, could throw a wrench in efforts to foster public faith in the Police Department.

N.H. town makes city lawsuits public

City officials in Danville, N.H., have decided to make town lawsuits easily accessible to the public.

Lawsuits both won and lost by the city are to be posted on the city website.

The city board voted unanimously to make the resolved lawsuits public.

In Danville this week, the open government tally so far is Transparency: 1, Secrecy: 0.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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FOI DAILY DOSE: NYT reporter subpoenaed in CIA leak case and Wisconsin voting issues

NY TIMES REPORTER SUBPOENAED

A New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner, James Risen, was subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice for the trial of a suspected government whistleblower.

The accused leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was indicted in December 2010 by a federal grand jury in Virginia. He is on trial for allegedly providing national defense information to Risen that appeared in a 2006 book called “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

No federal law exists that exempts journalists from testifying. Risen’s lawyer told The Associated Press he would attempt to have a judge override the subpoena.

The Society of Professional Journalists has, with other journalism groups and news outlets, pushed for a federal shield law in recent years. The proposed Free Flow of Information Act would protect journalists like Risen from turning over confidential sources and notes in federal cases, though there would be certain national security exceptions.

WISCONSIN

In Wisconsin, Media Trackers investigated voting practices during the April 5 election using open records requests.

From a small sample of registrations in 15 wards, Media Trackers found evidence of incomplete voter registrations and possible voter registration abuses.

Providing proof of residence for voters was a major problem uncovered by the records request. In one instance, a voter provided an acceptance letter from the University of Minnesota as a proof of residence, which wouldn’t be deemed acceptable under the guidelines by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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FOI Tip of the Week: FOIA fee cheat sheet

This is the first of our weekly tips for all things FOI. These posts can help reporters and other citizens in their quest for information, whether they are pursuing records at the local, state or federal level.

FOIA fees can be tricky, especially when dealing with the federal government. It’s not just those searching for records who get confused, but also the officials expected to fill their requests.

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) held a summit May 17 to clear up some of the biggest fee-related issues for federal employees.

While there are plenty of twists and turns that citizens may encounter when requesting access to public records, fees are one of the most important concerns because they can be taxing on requesters’ wallets as well as their patience.

The Office of Government Information Services provides a simple but handy chart that explains key differences between fee and requester categories for FOIA.

It should be of help in assessing the basic fee requirements you may face when requesting records from the federal government.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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FOI DAILY DOSE: FBI’s secret surveillance and a CIA lawsuit for post-9/11 files

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the U.S. Department of Justice clashed over the nondisclosure of a secret legal memo that justifies the FBI’s ability to access citizen phone records without the inclusion of any oversight or legal process.

EFF filed a FOIA lawsuit Thursday demanding release of the memo, according to an EFF press release.

Last year, a report from the DOJ Inspector General stated the FBI had found a new way to justify this telephone access that was corroborated by an opinion issued by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel.

The report was redacted and failed to disclose the statutes that form the backbone of this legal justification and to explain the kinds of records to which the new exception applies.

The CIA is also facing a FOIA lawsuit.

Filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the lawsuit demands records about the CIA Inspector General’s report on the treatment of people detained outside the U.S. after Sept.11. It also requests information on an internal investigation into the Office of the Inspector General itself that was reported in 2007 by The New York Times.

The initial FOIA request was submitted on April 25, according to the lawsuit, but the CIA hasn’t disclosed the records or explained its reasoning for withholding any information.

The lawsuit cites articles about Osama bin Laden’s death and the revival of debates about the use of torture techniques as a key reason for requesting the immediate release of the requested documents.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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FOI DAILY DOSE: FOIA summit and executive order opposition outrage

While a summit today in Washington, D.C. trained government employees to handle fee-related FOIA issues, House Republicans opposed a potential executive order from President Obama that would increase political transparency among government contractors.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy held its FOIA Fee Summit today to train employees from various government agencies to handle issues that often occur when deciding what fees or fee waivers are appropriate for FOIA requests, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.

The summit wasn’t the OIP’s only FOI-related event today. It also held the first of two training sessions about new guidelines for FOIA’s Exemption 2, which allows records “related solely to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency” to be exempted from mandatory disclosure under the act.

This exemption figured prominently in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, Milner v. Department of the Navy. The court decided in March that the rule should be interpreted more narrowly.

The second session will be on June 9.

While the OIP educated employees on the finer points of FOIA today, Obama continued to face opposition over a proposed executive order that would force government contractors to disclose any political contributions, according to The Hill, a congressional newspaper.

In a letter to Obama sent Monday, 43 members of the Republican Study Committee, a group that includes more than 175 Republicans in the House of Representatives and aims to promote a conservative economic and social agenda, asked him not to sign the draft order. If he does, they wrote they would introduce legislation quickly in the House of Representatives to block it from being implemented.

While Republicans and some Democrats have voiced opposition to the order, more than 30 public interest groups have supported it.

- Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email (mwatkins@spj.org) or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

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