The DHS Says 'No' To Requests For Public Affairs Contact Numbers; Hysterically Cites 'Privacy' Concerns

from the surely-public-affairs-numbers-should-be-public,-non? dept

Not to continue to beat on this dead horse of administration promises, but statements were made about adopting a "presumption in favor of disclosure" when it came to Freedom of Information Act requests and a general mindset of "transparency" was supposed to be on its way, washing away 8 years worth of privacy erosion and compartmentalization.

But, privacy continues to be a one-way street paved with tax dollars. The Department of Homeland Security, which has expressed an interest in securing all information ever from U.S. citizens, is apparently concerned that releasing phone numbers for its Public Affairs department would result in a horrendous breach of privacy:

Some federal agencies post the office phone numbers of public affairs staff on their websites.

Not the Department of Homeland Security, which believes their release poses "a clearly unwarranted invasion" of employee privacy.

That was the department's response when it denied a Federal Times Freedom of Information Act request for the office phone numbers of its official spokesman. Personal privacy exemptions to FOIA are more commonly used to block disclosure of personnel or medical files.
This isn't an exception to the rule. Despite the clear wording of the 2009 directive, which instructed executive branch agencies not to withhold information just because they could, the end result has been an uneven distribution of compliance and stonewalling.

And it's not just intelligence agencies doing the stonewalling. The U.S. Post Office has also given FOIA requests the extended runaround:
In late 2009, for example, Federal Times asked the U.S. Postal Service for five years worth of data on its use of "standby time," when employees are paid to do nothing. Almost two years later, the Postal Service responded last month by withholding the information on the grounds it was covered by the "trade secrets" exemption. But along with that response, the Postal Service enclosed a copy of a recent inspector general's report that contains some of the same information Federal Times was seeking.
So much for "trade secrets." I'm sure that while FedEx and UPS would have enjoyed seeing the downtime numbers, they probably would have done little more than laughed at the USPS's inefficiency. And apparently the "trade secrets" weren't so secret that they couldn't be released through other channels.

But there is a ray of sunshine in all this mess (albeit, a ray swiftly being covered in black ink). The DHS finally responded to the FOIA request for Public Affairs phone numbers, in a way that only an intelligence agency could with a straight face:
The agency eventually released a 58-page directory of public affairs staff, but redacted every phone number under the privacy exemption.
Of course! Here's the information you requested! Please note that all of the information you've requested has been withheld! No refunds! An explanation of the decision to redact all of the requested information was delivered by Mary Ellen Callahan, head black marker wielder (Chief FOIA Officer) for the DHS:
"In many cases, information that identifies individual DHS employees does not directly shed light on the operations or activities of the government, and FOIA officers should withhold it," Callahan wrote last year. She added, however, that senior-level officials "have a lesser expectation of privacy than lower-level administrative employees."
If you can't even get the phone number for a PR flack, all hope (and some of the change) is lost. Great job, DHS!

(H/T to Radley Balko.)

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Filed Under: freedom of information, homeland security, phone numbers, transparency


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  1. icon
    The Devil's Coachman (profile), 13 Oct 2011 @ 5:14pm

    DHS = Old People's Shit-piss

    It's that simple. Nothing more to see here.

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