Sep 05 2013

How the TSA treats FOIA requesters it doesn’t like

The more we learn about the TSA’s handling of our Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the uglier it gets. The latest chapter in the TSA’s vendetta against us is described in a FOIA appeal we filed this week.

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.

In addition, we have now obtained less redacted versions of internal TSA and DHS email messages (which were officially released to us only with the most incriminating portions blacked out) showing that the TSA’s Chief Privacy Officer engaged in a campaign of character assassination intended to persuade TSA FOIA staff that individuals associated with The Identity Project are lunatics and liars and hold particular opinions and beliefs as a result of which we and our requests should be ignored or not taken seriously.

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In the libelous internal TSA email message reproduced above, TSA Privacy Officer Peter Pietra had this to say about Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant to The Identity Project who has filed many of our FOIA requests (and asked questions of Mr. Petra and filed other FOIA requests for records related to Mr. Petra’s work):

Ed is crazy as a loon, and as rude and belligerent at [sic] Bill says…. He misrepresents any interaction you have with him, so be wary (even where there is video that contradicts his version of events). He also thought 9/11 was a govt conspiracy because the FBI investigated it instead of the NTSB.

This message was distributed to TSA FOIA officers including those involved in processing our FOIA requests. And it was sent — the TSA itself later found — with the intention of influencing their decisions.

Even if Mr. Hasbrouck held these opinions and beliefs (which he doesn’t — the allegations about his opinions and beliefs are pure fabrications by TSA staff), who we are or what individuals associated with our organization think or believe is irrelevant to our entitlement to access government records pursuant to FOIA.

Attempting to induce FOIA staff to base FOIA processing or decisions on their opinions of the requesters’ beliefs is among the most serious forms of possible misconduct by officials responsible for compliance with FOIA.

If there’s anything worse, it’s withholding requested government records in order to cover up offical misconduct. But that’s exactly what happened when we requested the email message above.

The TSA’s Chief FOIA Officer and FOIA Public Liaison, Yvonne Coates, redacted the libelous portions of the message on the grounds that they were part of the decision-making process (even though she knows that making FOIA decision on the basis of who we are or what we believe is forbidden by FOIA) and that disclosure of these portions of the message “would injure the quality of future agency decisions by discouraging the open and frank policy discussions between subordinates and superiors”:

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The dismal track record of DHS and TSA noncompliance with FOIA began with the creation of these agencies during the Bush administration, and has continued during the Obama  administration.  Our FOIA requests (like those of other requesters) have routinely been delayed or lost. Responses have been incomplete, improperly and excessively redacted, and almost always months or years later than the deadlines in the law.

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