DHS Privacy Office ordered TSA not to answer our FOIA request

Records posted online by the DHS in response to one of our FOIA requests confirm that, as we suspected, DHS headquarters has been illegally blocking release of documents we have requested, and to which we are entitled, under the Freedom of Information Act, in order to subject them to higher-level political review and an illegal requirement for higher-level political approval prior to any response.

In an email message (pp. 24-26 of this larger PDF) to the Chief FOIA Officers of all DHS component agencies on December 23, 2009, Catherine Papoi, DHS Deputy Chief FOIA Officer and Director of Departmental Disclosure and FOIA, included one of our requests for information about TSA policies in a list of requests to be reported to the DHS White House liaison and reviewed by the “DHS HQ Front Office” prior to any response or release of records, regardless of the deadlines for responses and release of responsive records set by FOIA.

According to this email message, underlined and in boldface for double emphasis, “It is very important that your office not send the response to the requester until I notify you that the response has been reviewed and is cleared to be sent to the requester.”

According to a July 7, 2009, policy memo (local copy) to all DHS FOIA officers from Mary Ellen Callahan, DHS Chief FOIA Officer and Chief Privacy Officer, requests to be reported to the DHS Privacy Office and included in DHS weekly reports to the White House include any request “from a member of the media” or “from a member of an activist group, watchdog organization, special interest group, etc.” [Update: DHS has since posted copies of earlier versions of this policy from 2006 and 2005.]

The lists of requests subjected to this special treatment, as included in the fragmentary documents  released by DHS, include numerous requests from staff reporters for mainstream media, freelance journalists, at least one (unnamed) blogger, and activist and watchdog groups including EFF, EPIC, the ACLU, and many others, as well as the Identity Project.

We still have received no response to our request which was subjected to this illegal review and approval requirement, or to our follow-up FOIA request for all records of the processing of our original request (including all records of the “Front Office Review” process).  Those requests remain pending, and we will continue to pursue them.

[More follow-up from the Associated Press (March 28, 2011), based on more complete versions of the redacted documents; our letter to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigating the DHS FOIA processing scandal, describing our experiences with our FOIA requests to DHS components.]

15 Responses to “DHS Privacy Office ordered TSA not to answer our FOIA request”

  1. Left to chance » DHS Singles Out EFF’s FOIA Requests for Unprecedented Extra Layer of Review Says:

    [...] FOIA Requests for Unprecedented Extra Layer of Review The Identity Project notes on its blog today that the Department of Homeland Security singled out EFF, along with other activist groups [...]

  2. Edward Hasbrouck Says:

    EFF Deeplinks: DHS Singles Out EFF’s FOIA Requests for Unprecedented Extra Layer of Review

  3. DHS Privacy office ordered TSA not to respond to my FOIA request » Travel Insights 100 Says:

    [...] Edward Hasbrouck Details here from the Identity Project (PapersPlease.org). Posted by Edward, 29 October 2010, [...]

  4. FRINFORMSUM: 11/3/2010 « UNREDACTED Says:

    [...] stay tuned to this story:  The Department of Homeland Security has been adding an extra layer of screening to FOIA requests for political reasons.  This certainly appears to be a blatant violation to the [...]

  5. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » What is to be done about TSA? Says:

    [...] were caught by the Associated Press, the most senior FOIA and “privacy” officer for DHS gave direct orders to the TSA not to provide us with any responses without express prior permission from DHS [...]

  6. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Trial to begin December 7th in TSA checkpoint case Says:

    [...] its secret procedures and directives for airport checkpoints.  And the DHS Privacy office has ordered the TSA not respond to our request for these documents without approval from the DHS “front office”, which apparently has never been [...]

  7. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Self-restraint is not the solution for the TSA Says:

    [...] airport checkpoints are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The DHS Privacy Office ordered the TSA not respond to our request for these documents without approval from the DHS “front office”, including the White House liaison. Apparently [...]

  8. DHS Privacy office ordered TSA not to respond to my FOIA request | Vacation Trends Says:

    [...] here from the Identity Project [...]

  9. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Tidbits from the TSA show “screening” being used as illegal general criminal dragnet, not for aviation security Says:

    [...] TSA continues to drag its feet in responding to our outstanding Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests for the policies and [...]

  10. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » European Commission wants to immunize DHS collaborators in travel surveillance and control Says:

    [...] of an ongoing scandal and attempted cover-up involving political interference with requests — including ours — for DHS records. The only judicial oversight contemplated in the draft [...]

  11. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » The DHS FOIA Office “is not in service” Says:

    [...] and DHS, including a request for records of what happened to our earlier FOIA requests that were subjected to a special program  of political review and reporting to the White House, and a request for records that were previously improperly [...]

  12. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » TSA never got OMB approval for “Certification of ID” (Form 415) Says:

    [...] From responses to our previous requests, we know that the FOIA “front office” has ordered the TSA not to respond to our requests without this approval, even if responses are complete and otherwise ready to go [...]

  13. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » How the TSA treats FOIA requesters it doesn’t like Says:

    [...] The DHS, which of course includes the TSA, has long had a department-wide policy requiring special political approval — and often delay — of all FOIA requests from media, watchdog, or activist individuals or organizations, which we know included requests from The Identity Project. [...]

  14. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Sai v. TSA: A case study in TSA secrecy Says:

    [...] been on the receiving end of obstruction of our FOIA requests by TSA and DHS officials on the basis of documented personal animus, and there has been systematic political interference by [...]

  15. Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » FOIA appeals reveal problems with PNR data Says:

    [...] seen this pattern even in responses to requests from journalist and public figures which, according to DHS policy, would have been subject to pre-release review and approval by the DHS “front [...]

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