Obama Administration Continues to Make a Mockery of FOIA


The Obama Administration is once again fucking with the Freedom of Information Act, this time at the Department of Defense. In May, after a White House staffer told reporters that a picture of a dead Osama bin Laden had been taken for identification purposes, Politico's Ken Vogel filed a FOIA request for "any and all photographs/video footage of Osama bin Laden taken by United States military or intelligence personnel during or following the U.S. action in Abbottabad…on May 1, including but not limited to photographs taken at the scene of the action, and those taken afterwards, aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson." 

Vogel is not the only reporter to have requested the dead OBL pic, but as far as I know, he's the only person who posted the DoD's response online. Here's the relevant part: 

The Office of the Secretary of Defense/Joint Staff FOIA Office is responding on behalf of the entire Department of Defense to all FOIA requests within the DoD for information related to the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Therefore, they will respond directly to you concerning the FOIA request that you sent us. 

The Freedom of Information Act legally requires federal agencies to share information with journalists, law firms, public advocacy groups, and other curious requesters so long as it's not classified, a threat to national security, or pertaining to personnel issues (under the personnel exemption, the DoD can legally reject requests for its parking lot rules). Responding to FOIA requests is the job of nonpartisan career FOIA employees, who are prohibited from taking into consideration the motives or affiliations of requesters, or whether or not the information in question could possibly embarrass their superiors. If the information can legally be released, career FOIA employees know they must release it. 

The above DoD letter suggests that the Obama Administration is interfering in that process. Nonpartisan career FOIA employees at the DoD can't be trusted to respond to requests in a manner consistent with the White House's declaration that it will not release photos of OBL, so Secretary Robert Gates, who serves at the pleasure of the president, will have his personal FOIA staff vet all such requests.

This wouldn't be the first time a senior administration official had interefered in the FOIA process. The House Oversight Committee investigated the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year after a whistleblower revealed that Secretary Janet Napolitano's inner circle was vetting FOIA requests. Among the revelations: A former Obama campaign worker (and a number of other political hires) had been tasked with reviewing information requests from conservative groups.

If that was bad, the behavior of the DHS legal team was even worse. After a hearing, one DHS lawyer physically grabbed evidence obtained by the oversight committee and shoved it in his bag, telling the committee: 

As counsel for DHS, I object to counsel for the committee's refusal to allow exhibits they had shown to the witness and that all are e-mail messages from DHS personnel to DHS personnel on their official DHS-issued accounts and use of e-mail services. These are not committee records, these are, rather, DHS records; and so there is no reason the committee should be able to prevent us from taking them, since they have shown them to the witness and used them in this interview.

I mean, I guess I would note also for the record that because the committee – because the records have no origination nor creation or editing by the committee, other than redactions, it seems to me the committee has no reason to be able to exercise any control over those documents, and that they retain the nature of being DHS documents.

The DoD seems to be playing a similar game. Regardless of whether it's verifiably true that the OBL photo(s) pose a threat to national security, it's Obama's preference that the pictures remain unseen by the general public.