Posts Tagged ‘Bush’


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information under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemption for four years, and when confronted about its own outdated FOIA regulations, it didn’t respond for four months, according to the Washington Free Beacon.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

FOI Daily Dose: Feds obtain broad phone records for Verizon customers

Think The Associated Press and Fox News were the only ones whose phone records are watched by federal officials?  Think again. If you have a Verizon phone, you can add your name to the list.

A top secret court order issued in April grants the National Security Agency (NSA) a three-month window to collect phone records for any and all of Verizon’s millions of customers, including those who aren’t suspected of wrongdoing.

The order, approved through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) judge, expires July 19, but until then, it mandates that all calls are monitored on an “ongoing, daily basis,” according to the Guardian, which broke the story the evening of June 5.

A September 2012 Statistic Brain report shows that Verizon connects an average of 1 billion calls per day, and the government can monitor all calls within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other countries.

Although feds won’t be listening in on your conversations, the order allows them to see the numbers of both parties on a call, as well as the call location, duration and “unique identifiers,” the Guardian said. They can also track the time and duration of all calls you make.

Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald explains that this order shows for the first time that the Obama administration’s domestic surveillance rivals the Bush-era exploits into domestic telephone, Internet and email records authorized in 2001 to protect what the former administration called “national security interests” after the 9/11 terror attacks.

But Greenwald notes that the Obama administration’s Verizon surveillance is “extremely unusual” because FISA court orders typically monitor a “specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.”

Even those who typically support the president took to Twitter last night when the report came out, including former Vice President Al Gore who called it “obscenely outrageous.”

The Guardian said so far the NSA, the White House, the Justice Department and Verizon have declined comment. It is unknown whether other cell-phone providers have similar orders, but in a news conference on June 6, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) confirmed Verizon’s order is a three month renewal of ongoing practice, the Huffington Post reports.

More than anything, Greenwald’s article emphasized the current administration’s “extreme interpretation of the law” to exploit American privacy without the American people even realizing it.

For watchdog journalists, it’s only the latest federal tug on our leash, reminding us the government still has its hold on private communications, and its grasp might be stronger than we imagine.

Greenwald points to “numerous cryptic public warnings” from U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Co.) who have said the administration’s domestic surveillance power is so broad the American public would be “stunned” to learn its scope.

The New York Times reported that the legality of this type of domestic surveillance falls under the “hotly debated” Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Wyden and Udall disagree with the discrepancy in the way the Obama administration described Section 215 as a way to obtain a grand jury subpoena for business records in an ordinary criminal investigation and then secretly use the section to make it easier for the NSA to get a FISA court order to obtain any “business records” (from companies like Verizon) by proving that they were “relevant” to a national-security investigation.

The senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder complaining that this secret interpretation was misleading, saying: “There is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claims the law allows.”

But in 2011, the Justice Department denied misleading the public about the Patriot Act, according to the New York Times.

The Times said it filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2011 for a report describing the government’s interpretation of its Patriot Act surveillance powers.

But Times reporters Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt explain: “The Obama administration withheld the report, and a judge dismissed the case.”

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.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Google releases transparency data, NYT articles explore Obama-era open gov

Google: U.S. government biggest requester of private info

Google released transparency information showing the U.S. government to be the biggest requester of private information.

From July to Dec. 2010, the U.S. requested user data 4,601 times. Google complied with 94 percent of those requests, according to a Guardian article.

Brazil had the second-highest number of requests at 1,804, while India took third place with 1,699 requests. The United Kingdom placed fourth with 1,162 requests.

Google’s compliance rate varied by country – India had 79 percent of its requests filled, while the U.K. had 72 percent of them partially or entirely completed.

Private user information was requested more than 14,000 times in the second half of 2010 in 26 developed nations.

NYT articles scrutinize open government under Obama

Two recent New York Times articles took aim at transparency under the Obama administration.

The first piece, a June 25 story by Natasha Singer, focuses on the need for faster, more comprehensive FOIA compliance and overall transparency at the federal level.

Obama called on government agencies to become more open on day one of his presidency, yet only 49 of 90 agencies have made changes to their FOIA procedures in the two-and-a-half years since Obama entered the Oval Office, according to a National Security Archive study.

The story explores some problematic government practices regarding FOIA and methods being pursued to potentially improve the situation, such as the Faster FOIA Act.

It also looks at the still-undisclosed records regarding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage companies bailed out by the government using taxpayer dollars, as examples of government information that should be readily available but remain private.

A June 26 NYT editorial by Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, questions whether Obama has been a strong supporter of transparency as president.

The verdict: Kind of, but not really.

Stone acknowledges that Obama has taken some action to scale back the Bush administration’s legacy of anti-transparency, but he also points out ways in which Obama has perpetuated it.

One open government success for Obama was his repeal of a 2001 directive by Bush-era Attorney General John D. Ashcroft that allowed the government to classify any information that might hurt national security if disclosed.

As for Obama’s transparency failures, Stone mentions a few key problems. These include the president’s lack of support for whistleblowers and his flip-flopping on the issue of a federal journalist-source privilege, which would allow reporters to better protect their sources’ identities.

When he was a senator, Obama supported the Free Flow of Information Act, which aimed to provide federal protections for journalists. As president, he raised objections to the proposed bill before it later stalled in the Senate.

SPJ has been one of many journalism organizations and news outlets calling for such a law.

– 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).

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ