@StateDept Process From Document Production to FOIA Website Needs a Flowchart, Please

Posted: 12″25 am EDT


This is from the Civil Action No. 15-cv-123 (RC), Leopold v. U.S. State Department (PDF) related to the Clinton email production mandated by the court. The declaration is by Eric F. Stein who says he serve as a senior advisor and deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary on all issues related to GIS offices and programs. “I oversee all aspects of State’s effort to review, process, and produce the non-exempt portions of the emails provided to State by former Secretary Clinton, including the review and referral of documents to appropriate offices and agencies, and the posting of the documents on the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) website every month. I make the following statements based upon my personal knowledge, which in turn is based upon information furnished to me in the course of my official duties.”  Below is an excerpt of the declaration describing the steps  the documents must go through before they are posted on the website.

4. This declaration describes the steps that these documents must go through in order to be posted on the FOIA website, and, roughly, how much time those steps take, as of the time of the signing of this declaration, in support of State’s proposal to make this interim production on its website on February 13, as of the time of the signing of this declaration. The time estimates in this declaration depend on several variables, but most importantly on the need to continue devoting sufficient resources to completing the remaining 86% of the project by February 29.

5. Posting documents on State’s FOIA website involves several steps, and State’s ability to efficiently carry out these steps is sometimes limited by the available technology and by the availability of personnel who are sufficiently familiar with the technology. The FOIA system where the documents reside, named FREEDOMS, can be extremely rigid and slow, making the necessary steps in the process more time-consuming than one might otherwise expect. For example, as described herein, most steps must be applied document-by-document, as opposed to in an automated or batch fashion.

6. Where, as with the documents that are the subject of this declaration, feedback from the legal review has been provided to the FOIA office, and FOIA staff has modified redactions in FREEDOMS in accordance with that feedback, the final quality control process and posting begins. This process, which cannot be automated, starts with the manual, document-by- document process of removing internal markings that are used for tracking purposes during the review process. It could take anywhere from two to four hours1 to complete this task for the documents that are the subject of this declaration, depending on the availability of staff to do this work.

7. Once this process of removing internal control markings is completed, copies of the documents must be prepared for production. This posting process is an involved one, particularly because the review software resides solely on State’s classified network, and several steps are involved in transferring documents from that system to a public-facing website while still protecting sensitive national security information.

8. The first step of the posting process for the documents is to finalize the redactions on those documents. This is known as “burning” the document. Before any document can be produced, the proposed redactions, which appear in grayscale during the review process, need to be fully “burned” to the document so that the redacted information does not appear in the version produced to the public. It will take about an hour to burn this volume of documents.

9. After “burning” occurs, a system developer works to migrate a copy of the burned document out of FREEDOMS onto another review site on the classified network. It is on this classified review site that FOIA staff performs the final quality control checks. It would take approximately two hours to migrate this volume of documents.

10. Once this migration is complete, the documents must go through a final quality control check, during which State looks for several things. This check ensures that redactions to each document are consistent with redactions made in other documents. For example, many messages appear multiple times as part of longer email chains, and some emails that are not part of the same chain contain similar or identical information. The quality control check also helps ensure that redactions are marked with the proper exemptions. If there is information that is being redacted using the B1 exemption, further administrative steps are required to ensure that information requiring classification is properly marked as such. This includes the application of classification stamps which identify the level of classification of the information in the document; these stamps are checked to ensure that they show the appropriate level of classification. Based on my prior experience managing this process, I estimate that about four hours of quality control check time would be needed for the documents that are the subject of this declaration. If any changes are needed to the documents, another hour or two may be needed since documents would need to be unburned so that they can be changed, and then they would need to be burned again. For any documents on which changes were made, State would need to spend anywhere from one to several minutes reviewing that document and ensuring that those changes were now properly reflected. Thus, the total potential time needed for this process could be upwards of six hours.

11. After the documents have completed this final quality control check, the FOIA office then begins the process of transferring them from the classified system to the unclassified system. This is a manual process, requiring a person to do the transferring, and cannot be automated. The specific details of how this is accomplished implicate systems security concerns, and are not appropriate for discussion in a public filing. This migration process is estimated to take approximately one hour.

12. Once the documents have been transferred to the unclassified system, they must be copied to servers where they will reside when they are posted on State’s public-facing FOIA website. This will take another two hours to complete for these documents.

13. Prior to the website being made “live” and accessible to the public, a web developer works to test for and troubleshoot any problems that may have arisen during the transfer process as well as any issues that may occur when the documents become publicly available. This will require approximately an additional hour to complete. 14. Accordingly, the total amount of time required for the team to complete the posting of the interim production could be upwards of 16 hours, approximately two 8-hour days. State believes that its proposal of making the interim production on Saturday, February 13, provides time to address any additional problems that may arise, as have occurred in the past at this final stage in the process.

Thank heavens this guy is not writing a recipe, or we’d all be in thrown out of the test kitchen already.

Frankly, we’ve read this declaration several times and we are getting a headache trying to understanding how FREEDOMS works. FREEDOMS stands for Freedom of Information Document Management System which apparently tracks all case FOIA opening, processing, and closing (see performance goal from FY2005 that we’ve been able to dig up). The system is not listed on the State Department’s Privacy Impact Assessments nor its System of Record Notices.  With one exception, we have not been able to find anything more on its public website or the website.  The Federal IT Dashboard lists IT Spending in FY 2015 for A/GIS/IPS FREEDOMS/FREEDOMS2 (014-000000322) at $2.1million.

We did find a description of it from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as follows:

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