How FOIA can hold the powerful accountable, public and private alike

How FOIA can hold the powerful accountable, public and private alike

Also, calculating the cost of free speech and challenging the CIA’s arguments for selective disclosures

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

FOIA is a great way to keep the powerful is check, whether they be federal agencies, their employees, or tech giants. This week, stories from the Daily Californian, RealLivePolitics, and Columbia Journalism Review about revealing attempts by the government and two leading tech companies to withhold information from the public.

Send over your favorite FOIA stories via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook, and maybe we’ll include them in the next roundup.

Facebook vs FOIA

Columbia Journalism Review had a good piece about tech giants like Facebook and Amazon trying to limit public information and the FOIA process under code names or through subsidiaries.

Facebook, in particular, requested “prior notice” of any public records request before government officials had the chance to respond to it.

Free speech is expensive

According to documents that the Daily Californian obtained, UC Berkeley spent almost $4 million on free speech events in the span of one month last year. The university split $3.9 with the UC Office of the President to bring in external security and accompanying expenses like standby ambulances and barricades for the events from Aug 27 to Sept 27.

Redacted salaries worth $20 billion.

RealClearPolitics had a story about the U.S. Office of Personnel Management redacting exponentially more salaries on 2017 payroll data. According to the article, an estimated $20 billion in salaries from 68 federal agencies was redacted.

This was OPM’s reasoning for the redaction:

“On an ongoing basis, OPM reviews its methods for creating data files to ensure consistency with its Data Release Policy governing the release of records related to federal employees in positions or agencies that require location information to be redacted. Because the Adjusted Basic Salary field contains locality pay, OPM recently began redacting this information for certain classes of employees, hence the drop that your IT department noticed.

Selective disclosures and delayed data releases

Two incidents that raise concern about transparency from the Federation of American Scientists:

  • When Adam Johnson filed a FOIA for CIA emails, he found that the agency had selectively released classified documents to three journalists and denied his request for the same. Johnson filed a lawsuit with Dan Novak against the CIA, but the court ruled that this selective release of information did not violate FOIA laws.

  • The Obama administration chose to release security clearance data publicly, but the current government seems to have taken a step back, with a request to obtain clearance data kept pending.

Seen a great FOIA-based news story? Let us know and maybe we can include it in our next round up! Send it over via email, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Image via Obama White House Archives