This Week in Transparency: AP counts the ways Obama admin blocks info

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This post is adapted from CJ Ciaramella's weekly Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

The most transparent administration in history, an ongoing series

At a three-day convention of the American Society of News Editors, the Associated Press Media Editors and the Associated Press Photo Managers, leading U.S. reporters and editors did not have nice things to say about the Obama administration:

"The White House push to limit access and reduce transparency has essentially served as the secrecy road map for all kinds of organizations — from local and state governments to universities and even sporting events," Brian Carovillano, AP managing editor for U.S. news, said during a panel discussion.
James Risen, a New York Times reporter who is facing potential jail time as he battles government efforts to force him to testify at the trial of a former CIA officer accused of leaking classified information, also spoke at the conference. Risen said intense pressure on reporters and their sources is having a chilling effect on newsgathering.
He spoke of scaring one source just by going to his home and knocking on the front door.
"He opened the door and he turned white," Risen said. "He marches me back through the kitchen (to a back exit) and said, "'Go out that way.'"

The AP's Washington bureau chief, Sally Buzbee, didn't pull any punches, listing eight ways the Obama administration is blocking information. Here's the two related to FOIA:

6) One of the media — and public’s — most important legal tools, the Freedom of Information Act, is under siege. Requests for information under FOIA have become slow and expensive. Many federal agencies simply don’t respond at all in a timely manner, forcing news organizations to sue each time to force action.

7) The administration uses FOIAs as a tip service to uncover what news organizations are pursuing. Requests are now routinely forwarded to political appointees. At the agency that oversees the new health care law, for example, political appointees now handle the FOIA requests.

In response, the administration issued its regular non-statement when asked about the disparity between its stated commitment to transparency and its actions: "Over the past six years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives, and to solicit public participation in government decision-making and thus tap the expertise that resides outside of government."

"Gone to great efforts" is an interesting choice of words. From Watchdog.org:

[W]histleblowing is on the rise, according to Carolyn Lerner, chief attorney in the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.

“The numbers are through the roof,” Lerner reported.

The outcomes aren’t necessarily good news for taxpayers or advocates of open government.

Of 2,900 cases last year, 1,400 involved retaliation against whistleblowers, and whistleblowers prevailed less than a quarter of the time.

“There is a new trend,” said Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project. “(Washington) is making it a crime to blow the whistle. You have the choice of resigning or facing charges. That’s chilling.”

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LAWSUITS

  • DOJ intervenes in defamation suit against United Against Nuclear Iran, arguing that allowing the case to proceed would risk revealing state secrets.
  • Court rejects Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg's FOIA lawsuit for Gitmo costs. "The Defense Department said it found only one record, a single page, responsive to Rosenberg's request. That page was classified in its entirety."
  • Judge rejects FOIA lawsuit by two New York Times reporters detained at JFK Airport
  • EPIC files FOIA lawsuit for DoD records on reliability of electronic voting
  • DC Circuit Court denies motion to televise oral arguments in NSA surveillance case 
  • Better Government Association and NBC 5 files lawsuit against Illinois' largest school district for violating state record law.

CIA journal trove: Following a lawsuit, Jeffrey Scudder forced the CIA to declassify a trove of "Studies in Intelligence," the agency's in-house journal. The Washington Post has a good rundown of the juicier tidbits. The full release is here. The release also gives us our redaction of the week, courtesy of Jon Swaine, from an account of the morning of 9/11:

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USA TODAY obtains Senate rule book: Transparency groups have been trying for years to get their hands on the Senate's secret rule book, which governs how Senators do everything from obtain a piano for a Hill event to chartering a boat. The Senate Ethics Committee finally forked over a copy to USA Today. 

Boston Metro profiles Ryan Shapiro:  Vigilant newsletter readers and FOIA nerds are no doubt familiar with Ryan Shapiro's work. Boston Metro has a nice profile of his and Jason Leopold's work. Money quote: “The democratic process cannot meaningfully function without an informed citizenry, and such a citizenry is impossible without broad public access to information about the operations of government,” said Shapiro recently. “It’s time for the CIA and the rest of the U.S. intelligence community to recognize transparency not as a threat, but rather as an essential component of viable democracy.”

Always be prepared: Government Attic scored the weirdest FOIA docs of the week, "Proposed Plan for Intelligence Coverage in Alaska in the Event of an Invasion."

NYC Mayor de Blasio's office rejects FOIL request for memos on closing of NYPD's Demographics Unit.

Speaking of New York City mayors, Mike Bloomberg anonymously donated $250,000 to West Point's counter-terrorism center, according to a FOIA request by Conor Skelding. As his article notes, "Bloomberg anonymously donated hundred of millions of dollars to various groups in the lead-up to his successful push to extend term limits."

CBS files public record requests for athlete scholarship info with 43 colleges. Most complied at no charge, but several denied the requests or used the classic tactic of charging exorbitant fees to discourage the requester. Congrats to LSU, North Carolina, UCF, Kansas, and Michigan. Y'all are turrible. Just turrible.

Speaking of the University of Michigan, Riley Brands, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Texan student newspaper, filed numerous public records requests with universities for the names of faculty couples who had been hired. You'll be shocked to hear how Michigan responded:

"In a letter dated Aug. 6, the university’s Freedom of Information Act coordinator, Pat Sellinger, informed me that her unit could handle my request but that given 'the amount of time estimated to search for, retrieve, copy and review to separate exempt from nonexempt records within the scope of your request, production of responsive nonexempt records will result in unreasonably high costs for the university.' Specifically, $1,280."

Meanwhile, the University of Missouri claims its professors' course syllabi are copyrighted and exempt from public records requests.
 
STATE NEWS
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is suing the Pennsylvania governor's office and state's department of education to halt the executive branch's practice of destroying emails after five days if an employee determines they are not public record.
“A public requester has no recourse under the (Right-to-Know) law to contest the employee’s determination that an e-mail is not a public record, as it is permanently deleted from the server,” the lawsuit states.

Other state news ...

  • Massachusetts Secretary of State regularly keeps government records secret: "A Globe review of 50 of the most recent rulings by Galvin’s public records division found the office ordered agencies to release more documents or justify the fees they demanded only 20 percent of the time. Galvin’s own review found that the media companies, lawyers, activists, and others who have filed complaints this year got all the records they requested just 27 percent of the time."
  • MuckRock's 50 States of FOIA: The Center for Investigative Reporting's Amy Julia Harris breaks down California's public record laws
  • Pennsylvania ACLU files motion to unseal court records on state's use of lethal injection drugs.

EVENTS

  • Sep. 22: Advisory Committee on Transparency hosts "Bringing law into the light" on Capitol Hill.
  • Oct. 2: Virginia Press Assoc. hosts "Libel and Understanding VA's freedom of information act.'

Subscribe to CJ Ciaramella's weekly FOIA newsletter here.

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