The latest response to one of our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests confirms our suspicion that despite sworn testimony to the contrary to Congress by the DHS Chief FOIA Officer, the DHS has resumed, or never abandoned, its illegal practice of political interference and specially disfavored and delayed treatment of FOIA requests from journalists and activist organizations — including the Identity Project.
In 2005, the Associated Press discovered from the response to one of its FOIA requests for FOIA processing records that the DHS Chief FOIA Officer had ordered FOIA officers for the DHS headquarters and all DHS components (TSA, CBP, etc.) to flag all “significant” FOIA requests for special handling. “Significant” FOIA requests were to include, inter alia, any request on a controversial topic; likely to generate news coverage; or from a journalist, news organization, or activist organization (those terms being undefined in the order).
All planned actions on “significant” FOIA requests (acknowledgments of receipt, releases of responsive records, appeals, litigation, etc.) were to be reported in advance to the DHS “front office” for inclusion in a weekly report to the DHS White House liaison. Crucially, both the general order and the memos accompanying the weekly reports when they were circulated to all DHS and component FOIA officers explicitly forbade the release of any records or any other response to a “significant” request without the express prior approval of the DHS “front office”.
Questioned about this before a Congressional oversight committee during the ensuing scandal, DHS Chief FOIA Officer Mary Ellen Callahan swore that these orders didn’t really mean what they appeared to say. This was merely an “awareness” or “notification” system, not really an approval system, Chief FOIA Officer Callahan claimed:
[T]o my knowledge, no information deemed releasable by the FOIA Office or the Office of the General Counsel has at any point been withheld.
The Chief FOIA Officer told Congress, under oath, that the “notification” period had been reduced from indefinite to one day, and the default after one day, in the absence of “front office” action, had been changed from continued indefinite withholding to release of the response:
In fact, we continue to improve the system; DHS has now moved to a one-day awareness review for significant FOIA responses…. Significant FOIA releases are uploaded into a SharePoint system for a limited awareness review period – now one business day – and then automatically released by the relevant component FOIA office back to the requester.
But had anything really changed? We got an answer last week, as we were attempting to find out when we should expect a response to one of our requests for information about the “Federal Security Level” (FSL) that determines the date of applicability of certain REAL-ID Act rules for access to Federal facilities.
We requested information about what, if any, FSL has been assigned to each of a sampling of Federal facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, including symbolic targets and critical infrastructure (the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges), Federal courthouses and office buildings, and more. We’ll be publishing those responses, and our analysis of them, in a future article.
At its mid-point, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge passes (in a tunnel between the east and west high-level spans) through Yerba Buena Island, a Federal reservation which constitutes the US Coast Guard Station San Francisco. We asked for records about the FSL for Station San Francisco, including the Bay Bridge, and about the FSL for the (former?) NSA listening post at Two Rock Ranch in Sonoma County, which operates as USCG Training Center (“TRACEN”) Petaluma.
The Coast Guard is a partially military, partially civilian component of both the DHS and the Department of Defense. The DoD also has special rules for “significant” FOIA requests, but they are quite explicitly a notification system, not an approval system like the (former?) DHS system. In any case, it appears that the Coast Guard generally processes FOIA requests in its civilian, DHS capacity.
Our request was submitted to USCG headquarters, but after some run-around was referred to local USCG FOIA Officers in San Francisco and Petaluma for their separate responses directly to us. So far, so good. We had several cordial conversations with Mr. Kevin Fong, the FOIA Officer for USCG Sector San Francisco. So far as we could tell, he seemed to be making a sincere effort to identify any records responsive to our request.
The week before last, Mr. Fong told us that he had been unable to identify any responsive records (which would seem to indicate that the Bay Bridge had never been assigned an FSL). Mr. Fong said that he would be sending us formal notice of his failure to find any responsive records.
Since no responsive records had been found, there were no legal or interpretive issues that might have required higher-level consultation or decision-making regarding whether any of those records might be exempt from disclosure. No further “processing” of records was required, since there were no records to process. The statutory deadline for the Coast Guard’s response to our FOIA request had long since passed, and a response could and should have been provided immediately.
Instead, we got radio silence for another week. When we called Mr. Fong at the end of last week to find out what was holding up his response, he told us that our request had been designated as “significant”. No surprise there. We’re an educational and activist organization that takes an interest in controversial and newsworthy topics. So far as we know, all of our requests are designated as “significant” and included in the weekly reports to the DHS White House liaison.
Mr. Fong continued, however, that because our request was “significant” he had been required to submit his proposed response to national headquarters (whether of the USCG or of DHS wasn’t clear), and had been forbidden to provide his formal written response until he received approval from headquarters. He had been waiting a week for that approval.
Assuming what Mr. Fong told us is true, this is exactly the practice that the DHS Chief FOIA Officer swore under oath before Congress had been ended five years ago.
We’ve called the attention both of Mr. Fong and of the USCG headquarters FOIA office to the discrepancy between the way our current request is being handled and the previous DHS claims about the alleged reform of the process for “significant” FOIA requests.
DHS responses to others of our pending FOIA requests may be similarly blocked, but we can’t tell for sure. An otherwise-complete response to another of our FOIA requests, two years overdue, is also being held up pending “final review”. For this request, however — unlike the request referred to the Coast Guard discussed above — we don’t know whether the review that is delaying the response the additional review and approval by the DHS “front office” required because =our request was deemed “significant”, or some other review.
We’re still waiting for any comment, or any official response to our original FOIA request.