MuckRock’s year in FOIA: 2016

A look back through some of the stories FOIA helped tell this year

Written by JPat Brown
Edited by Michael Morisy

This year saw the release of MuckRock’s one millionth page of government records released under FOIA, and what’s more, half of that is from 2016 alone. Here’s the stories, big and small, you helped uncover this year.

  • Relatedly, and somewhat adorable, it turns out the decision to put a giant world-eating octopus on a spy satellite was not a sinister reference to SPECTRE, and instead just an engineering in-joke that got way out of hand.

  • In Massachusetts, a particularly underwhelming version of the badly-needed public records reform bill resurfaces, prompting transparency advocates and MuckRock staff to brave the cold to protest.

  • In honor of the X-Files relaunch, MuckRock digs into some of its strangest docs, including a Duke University study on dog ESP, funded by the Army. The theme is quietly shelved after staff actually watch the new episodes and conclude they are terrible.

  • Beryl Lipton kicks off the Private Prison Primer, a six-part series attempting to answer some of the biggest questions surrounding the for-profit incarceration industry. She starts with the big one - how is this even legal? - and spends the remainder of the year vaguely depressed.

  • After decades of secrecy and denial, the Army releases thousands of report listings for research performed at the Dugway Proving Grounds, a Rhode Island-sized chunk of the Utah desert used for testing biological weapons. To get a sense of how scary this stuff can get, we’ve got two words for you: “weaponized mosquitoes.”

  • A DEA official warns that marijuana legalization will lead to hoards of stoned zombie rabbits who have “cultivated a taste” for the plant, threatening civilization as we know it. Beryl requests any evidence to back up these claims, and shockingly, none exists.

  • Matt Guariglia uses public records law to prove what many New Yorkers have long known - that the NYPD is operating at least five “cop cabs.” Those New Yorkers take to twitter to point out that they knew this already in an extremely New York fashion.

  • A High School in Virginia apologized to parents who were offended by a Black History Month presentation implying that things haven’t always been great for people of color. Fortunately, nothing racially problematic happens again for the rest of the year.

  • In a totally un-KEWL move, the NSA maintain radio silence on CryptoKids request.

  • MuckRock starts a campaign to stop overfarming the redaction beetle, which sadly falls on deaf ears. #ThinkOfTheBeetle

  • Newly released talking points regarding a controversial Army interrogation manual shows the Pentagon justifying its use of torture by arguing its not that different from the conditions inside the American prison system. Beryl’s depression worsens.

  • Life imitates Fallout when the Air Force releases photos from that time it accidentally dropped a nuke on a child’s playhouse in South Carolina.

  • Beryl crunches the dog data of New York and determines that a Upper West Side Yorkshire Terrier named Max is the most New York dog there is. To the Williamsburgian who named their pug “Ziggy StarFox” - MuckRock salutes you.

  • MuckRock teams with LittleSis to launch a project looking at the growing police use of social media surveillance tech. Serveral of the companies investigated later lose data access from Facebook and Twitter once it comes out how cartoonishly sinister they are.

  • Low prices, lower expectations of privacy - we looked at when Homeland Security teamed-up with Walmart.

  • Beryl uses the “FOIA kills flossing” story to remind everybody that we keep putting mercury in our mouths, despite that being an obviously bad idea.

  • MuckRock’s newest staff member, Caitlin Russell launches a project to get executive session minutes from every municipality in Massachusetts. Almost immediately, she discovers that Fall River uses Open Meeting law to keep its meetings closed to the public, because Kafka doesn’t have anything on politics in the Bay State.

  • DEA announces that they have no intention of rescheduling marijuana, despite their own admission that the biggest threat it poses to it user is getting arrested for smoking it.

  • Beryl publishes the last piece in her Private Prison Primer on the same day that the Bureau of Prisons is phasing out its private prison contacts. Amid all the congratulatory excitement, Beryl quietly points out that this won’t have much of an impact, as the vast majority of federal contracts are with Homeland Security for immigration detention facilities, and then descends further into her blanket.

Privately Operated Immigration Detention Facilities

  • Brendan Kenny’s crowdfund successfully releases over a hundred pages of records related to Serial’s Adnan Syed case.

  • The NSA reveals its soft spot for weed-dad lit.

  • FBI releases a 2011 report which finds that “broadening U.S. military presence abroad” is the root cause in the rise in terror attacks. Despite being obvious, this continues to be completely unaddressed in counterterrorism programs.

  • In a move that definitely won’t come back to bite us, MuckRock announces the MuckRock Thiel Fellowship to investigate the work of Peter Thiel.

  • The hunt for the oldest government computer is concluded when a GAO report finds that the IRS is operating off of code from either the late ’50s or the early ’60s. The fact that nobody’s quite sure just how old it is is doubly-disconcerting. The title of oldest government computer not on earth goes to the Voyager probe, which 39 years later and 12.47 billion miles later, is still going strong.

  • Baltimore Police jack up the price of public records requests after a series of incriminating emails get released, prompting us to write an article about it and for that article - and those incriminating emails - to get shared thousands of times.

  • MuckRock kicks off a new monthly series to remind people that they shouldn’t wait until an election year to complain about how terrible the electoral process is.

  • On that subject, here’s Beryl on why you should be mad all the time, rather than just every four years.

Whew. So, if nothing else, 2016 was eventful. As we move into an uncertain future, we take solace in how much we’ve managed to accomplish together, and how now, more than ever, we need people willing to fight to hold our government accountable. From all of us at MuckRock, a very sincere thank you, and have a very transparent New Year.


Image via National Archives Flickr