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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Officially In: Dan Clune – From HR/BEX to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

 By Domani Spero

On June 21, President Obama announced his intent to nominate  Dan Clune as the next Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The WH released the following brief bio:

Dan Clune, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Class of Minister-Counselor, is an Assessor on the Board of Examiners in the Bureau of Human Resources at the Department of State.  From 2010 to 2012, he was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.  From 2007 to 2010, he was Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Canberra, Australia.  From 2005 to 2007, he was the Director of the Department of State Office of Monetary Affairs, and from 2002 to 2005, he was Director of the Department of State Office of Economic Policy and Public Diplomacy.  Mr. Clune served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Nassau, The Bahamas from 2000 to 2002.  Previously, he was the Trade Advisor at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development from 1998 to 2000.  In Washington, his earlier assignments include Director for Middle East in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative from 1997 to 1998, and Economic Officer in the European Affairs Bureau from 1990 to 1992.  He has also served overseas at the U.S. Embassies in Lima, Peru and Jakarta, Indonesia.

Mr. Clune received a B.A. from Boston College and a J.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.

Until 2012, Mr. Clune was the PDAS at the Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), and was reportedly charged with overseeing the Keystone XL project, one of the more contentious subjects facing the State Dept. in the domestic front; contentious enough that it might manifest during his confirmation hearing currently scheduled for Tuesday, July 23 at 9 am.

As an aside, Senators Sanders, Wyden and Whitehouse had requested State/OIG for an investigation into the State Department’s handling of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and National Lnterest Determination (NlD) for TransCanada Corporation’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  (See  Special Review of the Keystone XL Pipeline Permit Process Report Number AUD/SI-12-28, February 2012).

If confirmed, Mr. Clune would succeed career diplomat, Karen Stewart who was appointed chief of mission to the US Embassy in Vientiane in November 2010.  The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is one of the 42 countries in the world where we haven’t had a political appointee. Ever.

According to history.state.gov, the American Legation in Vientiane was established on August 22, 1950, when it opened under Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Paul L. Guest.  On July 27, 1955, the United States Senate confirmed Charles W. Yost, who was then Minister to Laos, for the post of Ambassador to Laos.  According to a joint announcement by the Governments of the United States and Laos on August 10, 1955, the United States elevated its diplomatic mission in Vientiane from a Legation to an Embassy. With the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) in December 1975, the diplomatic relation was downgraded. The ambassadorial relations was not restored until August 6, 1992 with the the presentation of  credentials by our first Ambassador to the LPDRAmbassador Charles B. Salmon Jr.

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