Defense Department Screws Over FOIA Requester Repeatedly, Blames Him For 'Breaking' The FOIA Process

from the the-other-FOIA-terrorist dept

The FOIA system is broken. The administration pays lip service to transparency while aggressively deploying exemptions. Agencies routinely complain about FOIA response budgets and staffing levels, yet no one seems motivated to fix this perennial issue. FOIA reform efforts moving forward with bipartisan support are repeatedly killed after receiving pushback from the White House.

Then there’s this: a single requester is being blamed for a backlog of FOIA requests at an agency that’s never underfunded — the Department of Defense.

According to its “Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer Report,” Nick Turse is the US citizen who has managed to bring the slowly-moving DoD FOIA machinery to a complete halt.

The report, for instance, laments that “despite their best efforts to provide helpful details, great customer service and efficient responses,” some DOD components were “still overwhelmed by one or two requesters who try to monopolize the system by filing a large number of requests or submitting disparate requests in groups which require a great deal of administrative time to adjudicate.” The study went on to call out:

“[o]ne particular requester [who] singlehandedly filed three requests with SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command], 53 requests with AFRICOM, 35 requests with SOCOM [Special Operations Command] and 217 requests with OSD/JS [Office of the Secretary of Defense/ Joint Staff] for a total of 308 cases this fiscal year alone. For AFRICOM, this represents 43 percent of their entire incoming requests for the year and 12 percent for SOCOM. This requester holds over 13 percent of the currently open and pending requests with OSD/JS and over the past two years has filed 415 initial requests and 54 appeals with this one component.”

If this seems like a lot of requests from one person, it isn’t. This is the way the system works. Agencies routinely delay responses (Turse has been waiting more than four years for responses to some of his FOIA requests) when not redacting them to uselessness, forcing requesters to make multiple requests for the same information or related documents, in hopes of actually receiving some information in response to their information requests.

The percentages may seem high, but AFRICOM isn’t exactly a popular FOIA target. This focus relates to Turse’s ongoing investigative reporting on abusive behavior by US soldiers stationed at bases in Africa. What he has managed to uncover so far isn’t pretty, and his reporting on it has won him no friends in the Pentagon.

I made, for instance, a couple hundred attempts to contact the command for information, comment, and clarification while working on an article about criminal acts and untoward behavior by U.S. troops in Africa — sexual assaults, the shooting of an officer by an enlisted man, drug use, sex with prostitutes, a bar crawl that ended in six deaths. Dozens of phone calls to public affairs personnel went unanswered, countless email requests were ignored.

At one point, I called [DoD Chief of Media Engagement Benjamin] Benson, the AFRICOM media chief, 32 times on a single business day from a phone line that identified me by name. He never picked up. I then placed a call from another number so that my identity would be concealed. He answered on the second ring. Once I identified myself, he claimed the connection was bad and the line went dead.

[…]

Today, when I write to the current AFRICOM public affairs chief, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Falvo, I receive similar treatment. I often get a return receipt back that tells me my email to him “was deleted without being read.” This happened to me, for example, on Thursday, September 10, 2015; Friday, October 2, 2015; Tuesday, October 6, 2015; Thursday, November 5, 2015; Friday, November 27, 2015; Wednesday, February 10, 2016 … you get the picture.

That the DoD finds itself swamped by Turse’s requests is its own fault. Had it simply returned the requested documents in a timely fashion, it would not have this Turse-centric backlog to complain about. Now, it’s using an official report to portray the FOIA process as unnecessarily burdensome on the government and prone to abuse by tenacious citizens. This portrayal is not only false, but it obscures the fact that the DoD still controls every interaction with FOIA requesters. It has held Turse at arms length for several years and now it won’t even answer his emails and phone calls regarding requests it has yet to answer. But in its report, it complains that it’s Turse that has broken the system, rather than this being the FOIA system’s natural state: that it only works as well as responding agencies want it to.

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Comments on “Defense Department Screws Over FOIA Requester Repeatedly, Blames Him For 'Breaking' The FOIA Process”

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31 Comments
Anonymoussays:

Turse has broken the system because he has failed in all his requests to move onto the final, unofficial step: give up. This whole time he was putting efforts into getting answers was fruitless because he didn’t realize that the system is not supposed to provide him with answers to his actual queries but pretend that there is a system that may provide an answer. They haven’t been able to move on to disappointing other FOIA requesters because he hasn’t gotten the clue.

That One Guysays:

Shooting your own foot

Of course the natural result of refusing to reply to phone calls and emails requesting clarification and/or comment on things he manages to ‘find’ in his research is that after a while I imagine he’ll stop bothering to try to contact them first, and will just go straight to publishing his findings, at which point those being reported on have the enjoyable task of doing damage control after the damage has already been done.

It’s no wonder they’ve been stonewalling him so much, that’s pretty much the only thing they’ve got left at this point.

Whateversays:

“f this seems like a lot of requests from one person, it isn’t. This is the way the system works. “

Sorry, but that is a lot of requests from a single person. What it looks like from over here is someone fishing for information, and hoping to get different versions of redacted documents to try to put together some grand conspiracy – which is pretty much what he confirms.

32 phone calls in a single day? Obsessed much?

You have to consider the hard numbers. 415 initial requests and 54 appeals. Let’s see. If each one generates even 100 responsive documents, and each one much be redacted and reviewed before being given out, you are looking at 40,000 to 50,000 pages. Now if each page takes 15 minutes to locate, review, and put in the package (and likely takes longer) you have 10,000 man hours of work. If you wanted to accomplish this on a reasonable scale (say 3 months) you would need 20-25 people working full time just to answer this guys requests. That doesn’t consider management of the people, the space to put them in, and any legal verification that would have to be made to get the documents out the door.

Do you honestly think anyone deserves to have a personal staff of 20 or 30 people looking for his conspiracy?

FOIA requests really should work on a much more specific scale. Too large a scale, and the system fails, plain and simple, and denies other more sane requests the time to get processed.

Whateversays:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

32 calls in a single day meets the standard for stalking in most places. Does the Media Cheif HAVE to answer this guys calls day in and day out?

Answer: NOPE. He’s not working for the reporter. The Media guy has a job to do and it’s not answering this guys endless questions over everyone else.

it’s the perfect example of why this one guy is pretty much breaking the system. When it gets to the point that they are screening calls to avoid dealing with his endless demands, then yeah, the system is broken. Don’t blame the victim, blame the abuser!

Anonymoussays:

A quote from a game comes to mind.

As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.

Coyne Tibbetssays:

1871 employees per request

To start, let’s do a little reverse-engineering: 308 requests is 43% of 716, approximately.

So the entire defense department (presumably including the NSA) receives 716 FOIA requests per fiscal year? And this has totally overwhelmed the DoD’s 1.34 million employees? With 1,871 employees to process each request?

I always heard government employees were lazy, but even I’m surprised.

Coyne Tibbetssays:

Re: Re: Re: Re: 1871 employees per request

No, I know they have some other jobs, generally speaking.

But it seems realistic to think that DoD could find four full-time persons, out of all those 1.34 million, to spend a WHOLE DAY answering each FOIA request. Wouldn’t you think?

I mean, just think about it: 240 work days per year per person x 4 persons is 960 requests per year. More than enough for this overwhelming massive surging flood of FOIA requests. So DoD’s inability to find four persons to deal with FOIA requests is pretty indicative of their priorities.

Anonymoussays:

I’ve had to run FOIA searches in the past (I’m a DoD employee), but not because my job is “FOIA researcher”. I was a Client Systems Technician at the time, so my piece of it involved running searches on the network storage that serviced over 5000 users for a handful of keywords regarding an incident that occurred about 5 years prior. I think I logged about 12 hours that week dealing with these searches (I’m salaried so it didn’t cost any extra money for me to spend an extra few hours that week to keep my actual work progressing) but that 12 hours turned up 3 files that were potentially related to the request. I then sent them to someone else (the actual FOIA folks) for review and whatnot. They were some kind of contracting docs, and were pretty big so I bet it was a bunch of hours to dig through them and maybe find nothing relevant. Knowing how we determine the time spent on any task in my little segment of the DoD, I bet the timelines reported are actually understated.

All that said, without spending a bunch of hours dredging up reports and comparing them (and making my own FOIA requests) I’m pretty sure there were just a bunch of folks that didn’t want to deal with this guy. If someone’s out to ‘get you’ and is pestering you with requests, I’d expect a logical person to have exercised their first strike capability and say, “Hey, this guy’s a problem” before it gets down to, “Just don’t answer his calls.” We talk a lot about perceptions and stuff in the DoD, down to the point of young folks getting hemmed-up off duty for dressing too ratchet out at the club despite the fact that they’re off duty and on their time. I’m pretty sure this is someone that’s just violated a chunk of integrity and did more damage to the Public Trust than would’ve happened if he just answered the dang phone calls

thanks for listening.

Whateversays:

Re: Re:

I think they may have also figured out that he was asking for the same documents in different ways in an attempt to get different versions of any blacking out on the documents to try to find out something. The number of requests suggest not a quest for information, but more like a quest for an accidental oops on a redaction.

If spotted, you can very much expect that nobody wanted to deal with him.

Anonymoussays:

re:

The members of this military unit could use some perspective. Nuclear history researcher Chuck Hansen was the bane of the Department of Energy for many years, and he managed to get quite a bit of historical information out thanks to DOE’s compliance with FOIA, as well as a good bit of generous cooperation. His collection is still available as a CD.

Apparently DOE’s FOIA office even had a special category for Mr. Hansen’s numerous requests – but they never stonewalled the way I see various agencies doing these days, nor did they ever claim that he ‘broke’ the FOIA process.

Anonymoussays:

Way too nebulous

I agree that FOIA requests should be specific and on a single subject. Too broad a request just wastes time and resources. Might as well request “All documents and records generated by DOD for the year 2015”, for example. That’s not much less specific that some of the shotgun requests (read: fishing expeditions) being made now.

Anonymoussays:

I’ve worked as a DoD FOIA processor, and I’ve handled a few of Turse’s cases, so I think I have some unique insight into this.

Pro-DoD – There are lots of great guys in DoD FOIA – people who care about the work, recognize its significance, and get the job done. I have nothing but respect for Jim Hogan. I have known countless individuals where the only thing stopping FOIA requests is limits on manpower and resources – you can’t requisition additional hours in the day to get everything done.

Anti-DoD – DoD is enormous. For FOIA purposes, that means it’s decentralized. As such, you get a wide variety in the quality of people doing FOIA, but, once you find the right people, you know it’s being handled by people who understand the documents, culture, etc. When the FOIA guy knows the subject matter expert personally, and sees him on a daily basis, there’s a good chance the FOIA guy will get what he needs to do his job (if there’s an uncooperative subject matter expert, there’s not much the FOIA guy can do).
That all wouldn’t be a problem, except that FOIA is resourced at the local level. And, as you can imagine, most military brass doesn’t have FOIA as a priority: it doesn’t kill sumbitches; it doesn’t keep sumbitches from killing our sumbitches; and it provides yet another avenue for anti-military assholes to harass our boys. Now, those are all good priorities for military leadership – you want brass that cares about protecting our boys, winning our wars. But it means FOIA gets neglected. Often, FOIA becomes yet another collateral duty for the secretary/coffee boy/office bitch, often times explicitly defined as 10% of their duties – so about 45 minutes a day, and rarely the aspect of job performance that gets any attention on their performance review. And that’s before we even touch on offices getting necessary supplies – there were times when we had to wait an entire month for printer toner to be in the budget. To summarize: FOIA is often underfunded and undermanned (training is a joke), and there are a few too many FOIA guys who just don’t care.
And avoiding the requester like that is simply inexcusable (assuming we’re getting the full story, which is a reasonable assumption).

Pro-Turse – Nick’s a good guy, and does important work. A lot of what he looks into needs to be looked into. And, at the end of the day, he’s a guy doing his job, just like everyone else.

Anti-Turse – And here’s where you expect me to rip into him. I’ll admit, his requests are no fun – they tend to be broad, sensitive, and he’s almost always asking for much more than he really wants. But, in my experience, he’s been eminently reasonable when contacted to clarify or narrow the scope. But then we get to the general problem of requester negotiation.
An ideal sort of negotiation:

Q: I want the moon.
A: That’s effectively impossible. It would require a century of dedicated engineers to determine if there’s even a feasible approach, and trillions of dollars and decades of research developing and testing prototypes before we can even attempt such a mission.
Q: How about some moon rocks?
A: That’s an intensive and cost-prohibitive task. It will take at least 5 years and billions of dollars.
Q: Well, how about some space dust?
A: … It will take a couple years to prep and deploy a collector unit to low-earth orbit.

For context, this is a less-than-ideal negotiation:

Q: I want the moon.
A: That’s effectively imp-
Q: FUCK YOU I’M SUING!

You get too many of the latter and you get gun shy. Especially when the risk analysis shows that most requesters are unlikely to sue, and most who do sue tend to wait longer if you simply don’t respond. The risk appetite leans toward “If they’re going to sue, let them sue.” And, to top it off, few generals would impede an otherwise excellent soldier’s career because he has less than stellar FOIA performance.

So how do we fix this? Well, that’s the million dollar question, now isn’t it?

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