Posts Tagged ‘whistleblower’

Guilty by Omission: Tristram Korten and FCIR Investigate What Florida’s DEP Leaves Out

It started off as a passing complaint from a former contractor with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; the word “climate change” was taboo. The contractor had been hired to write educational fact sheets about coral reefs, he told Tristram Korten, editor at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.  But every time he referenced climate change, he was told to remove or alter the phrase.

Korten knew if the tip turned out to be true, it would invite an interesting story. How could a state like Florida, rich in biodiversity and threatened by rising sea levels and extreme weather, be expected to protect its environment if a key agency could not address a major threat? Yet the whole story was based off a single source and as any journalist knows; that is simply not good enough. Korten needed more verification, but it would be a challenge. He’d have to prove a negative.

Did the Florida DEP really avoid the term “climate change?”

Korten and the FCIR’s investigation uncovered a major problem. Not only had the terms “climate change” and “global warming” dropped progressively out of public documents year after year, other agencies were boycotting the issue as well. It all seemed to coincide with the inauguration of new governor Rick Scott, who upon taking office in 2011, reorganized the DEP and appointed a new director.

Although there was no explicit order from Scott to the leaders of state agencies and Scott himself denied the claim, the findings kicked off an investigation that is still ongoing. Korten has reported omissions at the Department of Transportation, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Florida Department of Health.

How did he do it? In this case, there was no specific document to request, and no specific law to cite. Government officials refused to grant interviews; instead, Korten received short, dismissive email replies like “DEP does not have a policy on this.” Employees at state agencies were reluctant to talk, or insisted on remaining anonymous, for fear of losing their jobs.

Here are the tools and techniques Korten used to deal with those issues.

An email search. After filing a public records search for the information, Korten and his team employed a tightly controlled email search to look for explicit mentions of communications policies between agencies, or from agency leaders to employees. But the email search was kind of a needle-in-a-haystack approach, said Korten. He didn’t want to spend too much time on a fishing expedition through thousands of emails. However, his search did turn up one piece of evidence, a 2014 email from the Coastal office’s external affairs administrator to a regional administrator, telling him to avoid claiming “climate change” as a cause when he appeared in a National Geographic/Audubon documentary about sea-level rise. If using this approach, Korten advises journalists to request communications in their native electronic format to preserve the original text.


April 2014 email exchange between Florida DEP employees Michael Shirley, a regional administrator, and  Pamela King Phillips, the coastal office’s external affairs administrator. Story by Tristram Korten and

April 2014 email exchange between Florida DEP employees Michael Shirley, a regional administrator, and
Pamela King Phillips, the coastal office’s external affairs administrator. Story by Tristram Korten and

Linked In: Linked In is a great tool for finding current and former employees with various agencies. Because many current employees didn’t want to go on record for this story, Korten relied on finding former employees with valuable insight but no fear of retaliation. The best parts about this social media tool are being able to search by dates employed, and to see connections related to you or to other sources. Many ex-employees still balk at going on the record, however. Journalists can find and contact academics, contractors, lobbyists, and scientists with connections at this agency for more honest insight.


Linked In can be an invaluable tool in locating and connecting with sources.

Annual Publications and Reports. Korten and his team obtained the yearly DEP reports from 2010 (the year before Scott took office) up until 2015. This was an easy and convenient way to analyze the department’s priorities over time; as most agencies post their annual reports online for the general public. And there’s a simple technology that makes sifting through a hundred pages of pdf document feasible in minutes: the Ctrl + F (or find) function. Korten and his team ran a keyword analysis of PDF files on DEP’s public website — which included reports, agendas, correspondence and other communications. The result was a noticeable difference over the years, 209 instances in 20 documents in 2010 declined to only 34 occurrences in 2014. And Korten said most of the 2014 instances were merely references to older documents. Korten also suggests getting original drafts of the reports, if freedom of information laws allow. This way, you can analyze what edits were made, including erroneous omissions or rewordings.

Number of "climate change" references in Florida DEP reports, data collected by

Number of “climate change” references in Florida DEP reports, data collected by

Interviews, interviews, interviews. It’s crucial to attempt to get both sides of the story, even if one side refuses to talk. In Korten’s case, the lack of response from agency officials spoke volumes. And every example of censorship provided by an ex-employee served to strengthen the original tip. Korten said most of his networking took place in the state capital, Tallahassee, right at the heart of the government activity.

What’s next?

Korten is most anxious to see how his story and investigation will lead to the reintroduction of “climate change” into the public sphere. He wonders if the “ban” has impaired scientists’ and officials’ ability to carry out their jobs, and to what extent the former administration’s initiatives and laws have been dismantled. He’s hopeful for the future, now that the problem has been exposed.

“The response from inside the DEP was that people, many of whom were scientists, were frustrated with this taboo,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to put that restriction back on them.”

Ashley Mayrianne Jones, SPJ’s summer 2015 Pulliam/Kilgore Fellow, focuses on utilizing FOIA and open government data to improve investigative environmental reporting. Follow her blog for the latest tips, tricks and news updates. Email Ashley or tweet @amayrianne.

FOI DAILY DOSE: Army whistleblower hits gov with FOIA lawsuit, Rumsfeld releases new docs revealing secrecy views

Whistleblower sues for info on Army investigation

Army Lt. Col. Michael Holmes, who opposed what he felt were illegal actions while serving in Afghanistan, has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit with fellow solider Laural Levine to gain the release of an Army investigation’s results.

The investigation was launched in response to a Rolling Stone article that detailed how Holmes had spoken out against an Army general’s alleged orders for information operations specialists to employ “psychological operations” on congressional representatives visiting Afghanistan.

These operations are generally used on insurgents, according to the Project on Government Oversight.

Holmes enlisted the help of a military lawyer to ensure that the activities he was to take part in were modified because he felt they would otherwise have been illegal for him to perform.

He and Levine worked closely together in Afghanistan and felt they were later subjected to an Army investigation in retaliation.

For more details on Holmes’ story, check out the Rolling Stone article.

Rumsfeld releases 2005 memos revealing his rhetoric on secrecy

In a November 2005 memorandum then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the system of government secrecy was, quite frankly, a failure.

He wrote that the government was unable to keep a secret and that policies should reflect that fact.

Another Rumsfeld memo from August 2005 raised the idea of reducing the amount of information that is classified – a goal that is being evaluated by the Obama-ordered Fundamental Classification Guidance Review.

While these memos don’t appear to have had any major effect on policy, they do raise interesting points about government secrecy. The documents were posted on Rumsfeld’s website on July 12 with more than 500 other memos that had been previously undisclosed.

For commentary on the memos and their implications, read this Secrecy News blog post.

– 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).


Transparency Triumph of the Week: Watchdog sticks up for nuclear whistleblower

After an investigation that lasted nearly a year, engineer Walter Tamosaitis is finally getting government support for blowing the whistle on nuclear practices by the Energy Department.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent watchdog agency within the government, rebuked Energy Secretary Steven Chu and supported Tamosaitis in his claim that a $12.3 billion nuclear project’s safety culture has serious flaws.

The investigation into the engineer’s claims showed that he was unfairly removed from work on a nuclear project that was supposed to handle radioactive waste materials located near Hanford, Wash., after asking uncomfortable questions about its design.

63-year-old Tamosaitis was redirected into a basement storage room where he had little work to do, according to the LA Times.

He questioned engineering experts about the chemical mixing technology incorporated into the Hanford project’s design, which carried several risks, including the potential for hydrogen gas explosions.

Tamosaitis’ treatment is under investigation by the Labor Department.

Although the Energy Department’s handling of Tamosaitis is deplorable, at least a government watchdog has finally stepped up in support of him and has criticized the agency for its mishandling of both Tamosaitis and the project he was questioning.

– 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: Agent accuses ATF of retaliation, Wired editorial examines open data dump issues

Ex-ATF agent accuses agency of retaliation over Project Gunrunner

An agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has accused his employer of retaliating against him for publicizing information on an agency scandal.

Vince Cefalu said he was given notice of his termination last week in a move he argues is motivated by his decision to speak out against “Project Gunrunner,” a scandal that revealed the ATF’s role in permitting thousands of guns to be sent across the U.S.-Mexico border and end up in the possession of Mexican drug gangs.

Cefalu’s termination letter doesn’t mention the Gunrunner situation, according to Fox News. One of the main reasons for firing him stated in the letter was his decision to leak documents on, a website Cefalu helped establish.

The Project Gunrunner fiasco led to congressional hearings on the issue and a public statement by Obama that the operation was a mistake.

Two days before Cefalu was notified of his firing, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., sent the ATF a letter telling its officials to refrain from retaliating against whistleblowers.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, posted a short comment online stating that the only acceptable response to this action by the ATF, if it turns out to have actually been whistleblower retaliation, is for a race between a few legislators and Obama to be “the first to kick the ass of the idiot at ATF who tried this.”

Wired editorial: Open data initiatives not sufficient by themselves

A Wired editorial by Jesse Lichtenstein examines the push for open data programs throughout the world, noting that dumping tons of government information online doesn’t mean transparency has been achieved.

Putting more government information online – as at least 16 countries have been doing via open data initiatives – is a step forward for transparency, but it can backfire.

Lichtenstein mentions the Bhoomi Project, which aimed to digitize about 20 million land titles in the Indian state of Karnataka, as an example of how data dumps can cause problems rather than provide open government solutions.

Instead of helping small landholders, the project helped corporations and wealthy tycoons that used the newly revealed data to challenge titles and find potential bribery targets.

If people aren’t taught to access and sift through the data governments put online, then the so-called data divide will widen and open data initiatives will fail to provide countries’ whole citizenry with better transparency.

Read the entire Wired editorial.

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

FOI DAILY DOSE: Levee breaks may support Army Corps whistleblower claims, watchdog wants unified spending database

Levee issues show whistleblower may be right about Army Corps

Levee breaks on the Missouri River this week may support whistleblower Maria Garzino’s claims against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A Politico article this week noted a February letter from Garzino to the Obama administration explaining various Corps failures. She presents information detailing how New Orleans is still as vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina-level flooding now as it was in 2005.

She also explained that the Corps deceived Congress and the public about a project that led, partly through faulty testing techniques, to the installation of equipment that can’t properly protect New Orleans from flooding.

A film, “The Big Uneasy,” shows how Hurricane Katrina could have been avoided. It follows Garzino and scientific investigation team leaders as they explain the Corps’ failures that contributed to the problems.

Stimulus watchdog calls for unified coding system for fund reports

The federal government’s primary watchdog for stimulus spending spoke with lawmakers Tuesday, calling for an oversight database that tracks federal spending based not on agencies but on funding recipients’ reports.

Recovery and Transparency Accountability Board Chairman Earl Devaney also recommended using a unified coding system for federal spending data. A unified database would save time previously spent working through different systems when codes didn’t match.

The unified system could use a cloud computing data storage model.

Cloud computing outsources IT services like data storage to a remotely accessed shared platform. While a vendor maintains the applications running via the cloud, the agency can more easily handle other issues.

This model is used on the website and has saved time and money in the year since it was implemented, Devaney said.

– 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: Open gov orgs push for money for E-Gov Fund, ACLU sues for WikiLeaks-released U.S. cables

Transparency groups call on Congress to restore open gov funding

Accountability group OMB Watch released a letter Monday that urged Congress to consider restoring funding for the Electronic Government Fund, or E-Gov Fund.

More than 30 open government groups signed the letter.

The E-Gov Fund supports government websites like and and bolsters transparency initiatives.

The 2011 fiscal year budget deal cut the fund’s financial support from $34 million to $8 million.

The House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee is scheduled to mark up a bill for the 2012 fiscal year on June 16, which will include information on the E-Gov Fund’s budget.

The letter requests that the subcommittee consider restoring funding for the E-Gov Fund in the measure.

ACLU sues for declassification of U.S. diplomatic cables

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. State Department in an attempt to force the declassification of embassy cables already released by WikiLeaks.

The ACLU’s April FOIA request for 23 cables already released by the website was ignored. Thus, the lawsuit.

WikiLeaks support group plans pro-Manning protest

A Boston-based group called Civic Counsel plans to hold a protest Wednesday opposing the treatment of Bradley Manning and the grand jury investigation into WikiLeaks.

It will be held in Boston on the day activist and Bradley Manning supporter David House is to appear in court due to a grand jury subpoena.

Manning is accused of leaking U.S. diplomatic cables and other information to WikiLeaks in 2010.

– 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).

On 40th anniversary, Pentagon Papers finally released

Forty years ago today, The New York Times published parts of the Pentagon Papers, a 7,000-page secret government report on U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War released by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

In honor of that anniversary, the federal government officially released the Pentagon Papers for the first time in their complete, un-redacted form.

You can read the documents in online, searchable form at the Washington Post website.

Daniel Ellsberg is one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history. In leaking the Pentagon Papers, he revealed the deceptive actions of presidential administrations helmed by Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and others as they escalated the situation in Vietnam while keeping Congress and the public in the dark about what was really going on.

It may be 40 years late, but at least the Pentagon Papers are now completely available to the public.

– 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: Drake agrees to plea bargain

Whistleblower Thomas Drake’s case ends with plea bargain

The case against Thomas Drake ended with a squeak, not a roar.

Drake, who provided information to a Baltimore Sun reporter in 2007 about waste in the NSA, accepted a plea bargain last week in which he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of intentionally exceeding authorized usage of his government computer.

Although the misdemeanor carries a potential prison sentence of one year, the government agreed that Drake would not serve any jail time. The misdemeanor is minor compared to the 10 felonies for which he was originally charged.

Drake was not on trial for leaking information to the Baltimore Sun, although the leak led to his indictment.

Concern that the federal government was overreaching in its prosecution of Drake was explored by several media outlets, including a New Yorker article on Drake’s indictment and a Washington Post editorial that said the federal government might be going overboard in its prosecution of Drake.

– 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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