A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Freedom of Information – In-brief

By Quill

CIA not exempt from FOI rules

The Central Intelligence Agency lost its bid to withhold documents from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups. The CIA argued the documents were “operational” and thus not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The RCFP reported Feb. 3 that U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in New York had rejected the CIA’s claim that the CIA Freedom of Information Act allowed the agency’s director to withhold operational files.

Hellerstein wrote that an exception to the CIA Freedom of Information Act comes into play when there is an investigation into the agency’s conduct (such as the CIA’s role in detainee treatment), and that files are then subject to the FOI Act.

The RCFP also noted that the defense department had requested additional time to process all of the requests and that it would be petitioning the judge for further delays.

Govt. drops FOI denial, charges over $370,000

People for the American Way will have to pay the Department of Justice $372,799 in search fees if it wants to see records relating to the DOJ’s efforts to seal court proceedings relating to immigrant detainees, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported Feb. 7.

The financial charge for the records follows the government’s initial denial of the group’s request, made under the Freedom of Information Act, according to RCFP. DOJ officials also warned the group that it would have to pay “10 cents per page copy costs” for any of the documents that were eventually provided, and that due to an increased office workload and a limited staff, the search could probably not begin for at least another year.

The RCFP noted that those who make FOI Act requests and are not affiliated with the media or with education or scientific institutions are required to fund search fees for any search time that exceeds the first two hours.

Court rules 911 tapes can be copied

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Feb. 24 that a 911 emergency-call tape could be copied, not just transcribed or reviewed, Carrie Spencer of The Associated Press reported in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The case came after a previous decision in which the court ruled that 911 tapes are public records. According to Ohio law, public records must be made available in the same format that the public agency uses, according to Spencer.

The Columbus Dispatch made the request for the tapes, but neither it nor any of its broadcast partners chose to air them, citing the disturbing content. Both the Dispatch and its broadcast partners expressed statements that the main issue was the principle of news organizations’ inherent right to access, according to Spencer.

Dispatch Editor Benjamin Marrison was quoted as stating, “Once you start making exceptions, the law is weakened.”

New bill seeks to revamp, strengthen FOI Act

Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate on Feb. 16 that would overhaul the Freedom of Information Act for the first time in almost a decade, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the bill that would effect a variety of changes to the current FOI Act. According to the RCFP, the bill would create an ombudsman office to serve as a mediator between the government and those that make FOI requests.

It would also make any information owned by the government but held by outside contractors subject to the FOI Act and would require that records be made on “secret exchanges of critical infrastructure information,” a reaction to the Homeland Security Act, according to the RCFP.

The RCFP quoted Cornyn as explaining to fellow Senators that, “This is not just a bill for the media. It is a bill for every man, woman and child in the United States of American who cares about the federal government … and ultimately cares about the success of our democracy.”