State Dept Responds to an FOIA Two Years After Request — Confusion and Hilarity Follows

— Domani Spero

One of our blog readers asked us about the Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA). Nope, we don’t know much about it except the (b)(6) exemptions which resulted on the redactions of OIG inspectors names from publicly available reports posted online.  In  October 2013, State/OIG finally started disclosing the names of inspectors in publicly available reports, so yay for that.

But because we’re a curious cat, we wanted to know why he was asking us about the FOIA. It turned out, our reader submitted a FOIA request to the State Department in 2012.  He wanted to know about “Meetings between Jeff Gorsky and the AILA.”  Mr. Gorsky is the Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion Section of the Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs and AILA is the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the national association of more than 13,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. Our reader, Mr. Requester, shared the confirmation of his FOIA request from 2012:

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After repeated inquiries and prodding, and after almost two years of waiting, a response finally arrived in Mr. Requester’s mail box this year. Note that the subject of the FOIA request is “Jeff Gorsky and the AILA” and the official State Department response to the FOIA request came from Mr. Gorsky himself. Take a look:

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What the hey?

Is it normal or routine that the subject of the FOIA request is also the signatory of the letter that basically says we found 42 documents but they all contain information that is “personal in nature?”

I don’t know, is it?  Help me out here.  These are presumably from work emails, how can they all be “personal in nature?”

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Note: FOIA Exemption (b)(6) – permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Is it bizarre or is it just totally expected that the responding office (b)(6)’ed just about every name that appears on the documents released?  In handwritten notations that look messy and all?  What’s the use of filing an FOIA if all you get are these scrawny (b)(6)s?  The email above concerns a meeting request on “L1 Visas in Singapore.” So, the names of all  pertinent parties to that meeting are also “personal in nature?”

Processing … processing ….screeeccch bang kaplunga!  Ugh! I don’t get it; I must be, like… like….like, a malfunctioned magnet*.

Folks, the White House publishes online its Visitor Access Records, and heavens help them, there are lots of names listed there; some even include middle names!

On March 16, 2009, just as the new president came to office, the State Department’s Bureau of Administration released an FOIA Guidance from the Secretary of State to the department employees.  In says in part:

On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama signed two memoranda on openness in government – one ushering in a new era of transparency in government, the other ordering a presumption of disclosure in the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The State Department will be at the forefront of making this commitment a reality.
[…]
As a Department, we should respond to requests in a timely manner, resolve doubts in favor of openness, and not withhold information based on speculative or abstract fears.
[…]
We need every Department employee to manage the challenge of informing the public and protecting information in a way that fulfills the President’s strong commitment to transparency.

Well, what about that, huh?

In any case, the Department of Justice FOIA Guide on Exemption 6 notes that “Personal privacy interests are protected by two provisions of the FOIA, Exemptions 6 and 7(C). … Exemption 6 permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (1)

The Guide also says that “In some instances, the disclosure of information might involve no invasion of privacy because, fundamentally, the information is of such a nature that no expectation of privacy exists. (49) For example, civilian federal employees generally have no expectation of privacy regarding their names, titles, grades, salaries, and duty stations as employees (50) or regarding the parts of their successful employment applications that show their qualifications for their positions.” (51)

Also this: “if the information at issue is particularly well known or is widely available within the public domain, there generally is no expectation of privacy. “

You should know that we have no expertise on FOIAs. But the State Department on this FOIA case managed to use the (b)(6) exemption to redact the names of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consular and that “Desk Officer for Singapore Visa matters.”

Here’s a person of the street question: Why would anyone think that disclosing Janice J. Jacobs‘ name as Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consulate Consular Affairs (she is on Wikipedia, by the way) would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy?” 

C’mon, folks, you gotta admit, this is totally hilarious!

 

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Let’s compare this to the  emails released under FOIA on the Keystone XL meetings. Also redacted but as you can see on the emails here, the State Department did not use the (b)(6) exemption and instead used (b)(5) which protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” But look how this is marked:

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Click on image to read the released emails.

The FOIA super ninja we consulted (thanks J!) suggested that an immediate appeal be filed.  Mr. Requester told us he already sent in an appeal.  We just hope the response to his appeal would not take two years, and would not include scrawny (b)(6)s for decorations.

Seriously. Do you realize  that if the State Department continue to slap (b)(6)s on FOIA’ed docs so thoughtlessly like this, that the agency will be at the forefront of making President Obama’s commitment to “transparency in government” and “presumption of disclosure” a laughing matter? Pardon me, it is already a laughing matter?  Well, a  competition then on who will be at the forefront.  

Folks, you need to fix this or we may be forced to start a rock band called Twisted Hilarity.    

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