These Are the 99 FOIA Requests Top Pentagon Officials Had to Approve

These Are the 99 FOIA Requests Top Pentagon Officials Had to Approve
May 14, 2014

Ninety-Nine Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by journalists and researchers since last July were flagged by the Department of Defense (DOD) and had to receive “Department Level Clearance” before agencies within DOD could issue a response and/or responsive records.

I obtained the latest so-called Department Level Interest list from DOD in response to—you guessed it—a FOIA request I filed in March. This is the second such list DOD has produced. The inaugural list was generated in late 2012.

Document requests from frequent FOIA requesters including Muckrock’s Michael Morisy and Shawn Musgrave, journalist Alexa O’Brien, the Associated Press’s Jack Gillum and The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock all required Department Level Clearance. The list indicates that all but eight FOIA requests have been closed and some requesters received responsive records.

For example, requests filed by Whitlock for Department of the Army Inspector General reports and investigations about misconduct by senior Army officials and civilians resulted in this report published last January in The Washington Post: “Military brass, behaving badly: Files detail a spate of misconduct dogging armed forces.”

Another request for files on the Joint Forces Staff College course, “Perspectives on Islam and Islamic Radicalization,” was posted on DOD’s FOIA reading room last week.

The Defense Department policy that calls for significant FOIA requests to first be reviewed by top officials applies to all defense FOIA offices. The policy was discovered last year by the nonpartisan group, Cause of Action, which obtained a document from DOD’s Inspector General citing the new rules.

“A ‘significant’ FOIA request is one where, in the Component’s judgment, the subject matter of the released documents may generate media interest and/or may be of interest or potential interest to DoD senior leadership,” the policy document states. “Any requests involving the current administration (including request for information on Senator Obama) previous administrations, and current or previous DoD leadership. Requests involving members of Congress should also be considered.”

DoD’s Freedom of Information Policy Office (DFOIPO), which, as Cause of Action noted, “is responsible for the formulation and implementation of FOIA policy guidance for DoD” handles the Department Level Clearance.

Transparency advocates previously told me the policy smacks of politicization of the FOIA process.

Nate Jones, of GWU’s National Security Archive, said such a policy creates an “opportunity for political interference.”

“FOIA officers should be trained to review documents for exemptions and release them solely on that criteria without politicization from higher ups,” Jones told me last July when I first wrote about DOD’s Department Level Interest list. “Real world examples of this DoD behavior are the centralization at DoD headquarters of all Bin Laden raid FOIAs (so say if I sent a request to the Navy, instead of processing it like they do for most documents, they’d give it to headquarters to decide. Same with requests on Guantanamo.”

Other government agencies, notably the Department of Homeland Security and Securities and Exchange Commission, also require certain FOIA requests to be screened by top officials before responses and/or records are turned over, increasing “the opportunity for political interference.”

One of the requests on the list that stood out was one that Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler filed with the Air Force for “data showing flights and miles flown to corroborate Vice President Biden’s assertion that he has traveled 800,000 [miles] as Vice President.”

That’s one of the eight requests that remains open.