Some Sunshine: Tale of Two FOIA’s

Photograph by Getty Images

A P2V Neptune U.S. patrol plane flies over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis in this 1962 photograph.

The last day of “Sunshine Week”’ — celebrating the Freedom of Information Act and not the Age of Aquarius from “Hair” — rings kinda hollow to this defense reporter.

Like many scribes, I was overjoyed — maybe too giddy — when President Barack Obama issued a 2009 FOIA memo directing that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.”

But two denials for information that I’ve received from the government illustrate that a former Nixon attorney general had a point: It’s always better to “watch what we do, not what we say.”

The denials reminded me of a famous line that JFK quipped in October 1962 at the height of one of the most dangerous moments in human history —  the Cuban Missile Crisis — after a U-2 pilot strayed into Soviet airspace: “There’s always some (SOB) who doesn’t get the message.”

Ditto for the FOIA officials at the Defense Department — they didn’t get the message of Obama’s `presumption of release’ memo.

My Tale of Two Denials:

I dashed off a request on Sept. 19, 2007, requesting a three-page memo prepared for Defense Secretary Robert Gates that outlined the involvement of U.S. and foreign contractors in Iraq. Parts of the content were read at a press conference that day by Gate’s press secretary.

Over five years later, on Dec. 31, 2012, I got the word: Legal counsel for the secretary “has determined that the responsive document, totaling three pages, is being denied in its entirety.”

The FOIA exemption had something to do with “certain communications directed to the president.”

Open government expert Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists said: “It’s a common tale. ”

“This is a particularly troubling case for two reasons,” he said. “First, portions of the document were previously revealed at a press briefing. So at least those portions ought to have been disclosed more or less automatically.”

Second, “the cited exemption is discretionary, not mandatory,” he said. “That means they were free to release the document if they wanted to. Evidently, they did not want to.”

A Jan. 23 FOIA request to the Pentagon Inspector General FOIA office for a copy of the closed investigation in the e-mail traffic probe between then-head of U.S. and NATO forces Marine Corp. Gen. John Allen and a Tampa, Florida, socialite, was rapidly turned around — and also denied.

The Feb. 15 reply from the office said that the “fact of the existence or non-existence of the records you requested is exempt from release in its entirety.”

Still, the IG did release a heavily redacted, one-page, Jan. 18 letter to Allen noting: “We conclude that you did not…..(redacted),”

What do you think about this article? Comment below!