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.