Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

FOI Daily Dose: FOIA affects immigration debate

Immigration isn’t just a talking point for President Obama, who praised the Senate’s progress on the comprehensive reform legislation at a June 12 Democratic National Committee fundraiser. It’s a hot topic for Freedom of Information Act  junkies this week, too.

The Judicial Watch, a public-interest watchdog group, reported June 12 that it recently acquired documents through a FOIA request that revealed the federal government isn’t complying with current immigration enforcement laws and regulations.

An anonymous whistle-blower within a federal law enforcement agency alerted Judicial Watch that the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services has been undermining America’s national security by replacing required background checks on undocumented immigrants with costly “lean and lite” procedures since late 2012. The USCIS allegedly adopted these “haphazard” procedures to keep up with the influx of amnesty applications under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that gives undocumented immigrants a two-year deferment from deportation. The Watch said their FOIA documents prove that background checks on immigrants seeking “deferred status” do not measure up to Immigration and National Security Act (INA) standards.

The Watch filed a FOIA request with the Homeland Security Department on Oct. 26, asking for “all communications, memoranda, emails, policy guidance, directives, initiatives and other correspondence respecting the scope and extent of background checks to be performed (or not) on aliens applying to the Obama administration’s DACA program.”

And the Watch isn’t the only group seeking more information related to  immigration. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a team of San Diego news organizations asked a federal judge on June 12 to break the seal on information about an undocumented immigrant who died after he was beaten and Tasered by Border Patrol agents, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In May, the agent’s attorneys asked the judge to seal the filings, and the government supported the request to prevent exposing the policies and procedures of Customs and Border Protection. But the ACLU said the cost of civil liberties in this case is too high, so they’re protesting the seal to “protect the public’s interest in open and transparent proceedings in cases involving serious questions of official misconduct,” the Union-Tribune said.

“The defendants’ extraordinary request to allow this case to proceed under full seal due to unspecified and unproven ‘security concerns’ violates both the First Amendment and the common law right of access to judicial records,” David Loy, legal director of the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, told the Union-Tribune. “Openness in judicial proceedings is essential to creating public trust in the legitimacy of the proceedings. In this case, defendants have not met the strict standard for cutting public access to the court record.”

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

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 or on Twitter: @KaraHackett. – See more at

FOI FYI: Is NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden a hero or villain?

While U.S. officials hunted for who leaked about the National Security Agency’s sweeping domestic surveillance late last week, the whistle-blower outed himself.

Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant and a current employee for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, requestedthe Guardian reveal his identity in an article and video interview published June 8.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” Snowden told the Guardian.

After working at the National Security Agency for the last four years, Snowden said he decided to leak top secret information about the government’s surveillance because his conscience got the best of him. He didn’t feel right about racking up a big pay check in his Hawaii office all the while fighting off his gut feeling that NSA workers like him could easily grant themselves the right to snoop on average Americans without “public oversight.”

“The result is people like myself have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to,” Snowden told the Guardian.

In the interview he also said the NSA “routinely lies in response to congressional inquiries about the scope of surveillance in America,” and he hopes that his outing will not detract attention from the top secret documents and information he publicized.

“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” he told the Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.”

Snowden made the decision to out the NSA in what the Guardian is calling the “biggest intelligence leak” in the organization’s history about three weeks ago when he copied top secret documents in his office and boarded a plane to Hong Kong on May 20. He has been hiding out and conducting secret interviews with the press ever since. He told his supervisors he needed to leave work for “a couple of weeks” for epilepsy treatments (a condition he actually has), the Guardian said.

Snowden told the Guardian that he chose Hong Kong because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,” and he thinks it’s one place he can hide from the repercussions of blowing the whistle on ultra-powerful American intelligence agencies.

Before Snowden revealed himself, the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald who has been breaking information about the NSA’s surveillance since June 5 (see our previous blog post) appeared on ABC News “This Week” Sunday to warn Americans there might be more than one NSA whistle-bower and to commend whistle-blowers everywhere for not allowing government prosecution to dissuade them from speaking out.

“(S)ince the government hides virtually everything that they do at the threat of criminal prosecution, the only way for us to learn about them is through these courageous whistle-blowers – who deserve our praise and gratitude, and not imprisonment and prosecution,” Greenwald told ABC News.

But also on “This Week” Sunday Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)  and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told ABC News that the NSA’s massive surveillance program is not only “within the law,”  but also it has already helped thwart terror plots, including Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plan to bomb New York City’s subways.

“I can tell you, in the Zazi case in New York, it’s exactly the program that was used,” Rogers told ABC News.

On June 7, President Obama addressed the press at an appearance in California primarily about health care. He explained that although he welcomes debate about citizen’s privacy concerns, he does not welcome the leak to the press because he said the NSA’s top secret programs are secret for a reason. They help the government identify and stop potential terrorists without alerting terrorists about how the system works.

“Our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm, and if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified,” Obama said on June 7.

He noted that NSA employees can be trusted to “operate like professionals” and their surveillance methods are “very narrowly circumscribed.”

One senior law enforcement source told ABC News last week that the leaker’s decision to spill top secret information about the NSA was “completely reckless and illegal.”

“It’s more than just unauthorized. He’s no hero,” the source told ABC News.

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 or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

FOIA compliance summary

Two freedom of information watchdogs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and, have released a joint report on compliance with the Freedom of Information Act by 15 major federal agencies, according to a report in the Federal Times. The study compares FOIA compliance data from FY 2008 and FY 2010, the first full fiscal year that President Obama has been in office.

From the introduction to the report:

“The results paint a very mixed picture on the FOIA front, with agencies generally processing more requests more quickly, but also increasing their reliance on the FOIA’s nine exemptions to withhold more information from the public.  Our analysis revealed an even more alarming truth:  the government’s FOIA data is flawed, making it impossible to assess key areas of progress and casting doubt on its overall reliability.”

Below are some highlights. Read the full report here: Measuring Transparency Under the FOIA: The Real Story Behind the Numbers.

  • Exemptions claimed have risen by 33 percent.
  • The Justice Department cited more frequent exemptions; the Department of Treasury had the most significant decline in exemptions.
  • A majority of agencies had made progress in dealing with the backlog of FOIA requests, from 126,200 at the end of FY 2008 to 64,500 at the end of FY 2010.
  • The overall number of requests increased by 11 percent, while compliance with requests has risen 8 percent.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Judiciary redaction privileges may be extended, Gov IT investments get transparent

Congress considering extension of judiciary redaction abilities

The House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 1059 Wednesday, which if approved by Congress and signed into law would indefinitely extend the ability of the Judicial Conference to redact information from reports on judicial financial disclosures.

Information that can be redacted includes any sensitive or personal data that would impact the people who filed the reports or their families. If Congress doesn’t extend the redaction privilege, it would expire on December 31.

The Administrative Office of the Courts submits a yearly report on how the Judicial Conference uses its redaction abilities, which helps the Senate and House Judiciary Committees evaluate if they have been improperly applied.

The Sunlight Foundation said in a blog post that these reports should be released online so the public is able to keep an eye on these redaction practices.

Gov to release more information on information technology investments

The Office of Management and Budget released new requirements this week that federal agencies will be expected to publish more detailed data online regarding their information technology investments.

This is supposed to give citizens a better idea of how government departments spend taxpayer dollars on IT services.

The new requirement is part of the IT reform plan that was released in December 2010 by federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, according to an InformationWeek article.

– Morgan Watkins

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

FOI Fail of the Week: Pentagon works to extend information safeguards, not rein them in

Although President Obama issued an executive order in November 2010 calling for agencies to narrow their use of labels like “Controlled Unclassified Information” and “for official use only,” the Defense Department is trying to impose even more restrictions.

The Pentagon proposed a rule in June that would permit new safeguard requirements for designations such as “Sensitive But Unclassified” that protect unclassified information from disclosure, according to Secrecy News.

The rule also requires protection of any unclassified information that hasn’t been specifically authorized for public disclosure.

This action, if implemented, would permit the further use of safeguarding labels. As a result, much unclassified information would continue to be kept from the public despite the Obama administration’s stated goal of putting more data into citizens’ hands.

– Morgan Watkins

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

FOI DAILY DOSE: GAO turns 90; transparency problems apparent in White House, State Dept.

90 candles for the GAO

The Government Accountability Office can blow out 90 candles for its birthday this month.

Since its creation in 1921, the GAO has been keeping watch over government spending. It oversees how taxpayer funds are used and how money is spent on everything from the Iraq war to NASA’s latest project.

The GAO was known as the General Accounting Office for the better part of its existence before former comptroller David Walker changed its name to the Government Accountability Office in 2004.

Check out the anniversary video the GAO has released about its long history.

State Dept. slacking on FOIA requests

Despite President Obama’s calls for government agencies to become more efficient in responding to FOIA requests, some are still lagging behind in their response times – particularly the State Department, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

CPI received notices from the State Department asking it to withdraw requests from 2007 that have yet to be completed.

The documents in question were requested by former CPI reporter Devin Varsalona for a story on how Obama and other presidents traditionally provide diplomatic postings to major donors. Many of the journalist’s requests were still unfilled when the story was published in 2008.

This isn’t the first time the State Department has been called out for being unresponsive regarding transparency issues like FOIA requests. As of March 10, the State Department still had not provided a final response to Obama’s memo on open government according to a National Security Archive study.

White House meetings not as transparent as promised

The Obama administration is supposedly in favor of transparency – but not if they’re talking about debt reduction.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said at a press briefing June 30 that the executive branch was so serious about reaching a debt-reduction deal with Congress that it would hold meetings without notifying the press corps about them.

Carney did backtrack during the press briefing, saying that there aren’t meetings with major leaders that are kept secret even though not all presidential meetings are publicly noted.

Obama met with House Speaker John Boehner Sunday – but the White House meeting wasn’t on his public schedule. Politico writer David Rogers was the first to report the meeting on Tuesday, but Carney would neither confirm nor deny news of the meeting on Wednesday.

He also justified the secrecy surrounding meetings by arguing that reaching a solid budget deal was more important and that having up-to-date information on presidential meetings is of little concern to members of the general public, according to Politico.

– Morgan Watkins

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


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 ( or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

FOI DAILY DOSE: DATA Act ready for next step, Illinois launches data site

Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2011 to go to House floor

After getting approval from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday, the DATA Act’s next step is to go to the House floor.

The bill would create a Federal Accountability and Spending Transparency Board with authority over federal spending. The board would assume control over from the Office of Management and Budget.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who introduced the DATA Act, is also involved with President Obama’s June 13 executive order that established a Government Accountability and Transparency Board headed by Vice President Joe Biden.

The bill, if passed, has an expiration date. All provisions will expire in seven years unless Congress reauthorizes it.

The DATA Act would also repeal the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which created It would overhaul the FFATA system, which depends on agencies to report spending information, and would instead get spending reports from federal fund recipients.

Check out this OMB Watch blog post that analyzes the potential effects of the bill.

Illinois launches government data clearinghouse website

The State of Illinois launched a website Tuesday that compiles searchable information from state departments and aims to give citizens a clearer picture of government operations.

The  State of Illinois Open Data website will also encourage people to use state government information. The creation of mobile device applications that could use the data is one potential method for taking the information the website is providing and putting it to good use.

The Illinois Innovation Council, which focuses on promoting innovative economic initiatives, is responsible for the website.

While the ultimate goal is for the website to eventually become a clearinghouse for information from all Illinois agencies, for now it includes data from only a few departments.

– Morgan Watkins

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


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