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.]