Matt Kauffman can’t remember exactly how he and reporting partner Lisa Chedekel began what would become an open government victory and a national story on the how the military ignores the mental health of combat soldiers.
What the Connecticut reporter remembers is waiting.
“It was hell,” he said.
In early 2005 or late 2004, the investigative desk of The Hartford Courant met and discussed what they knew: The armed forces were stretched thin, troops were facing multiple deployments, recruiters were lowering the bar on education and minor criminal records, and recruiters were breaking rules.
The reporters wondered if the bar was lowered for mental illness, too. Kauffman filed Freedom of Information Act requests but expected to get nothing. To his surprise, he received the records and found a spike in soldier suicides, a surge in antidepressant use among soldiers and the military failing to remove soldiers with mental illness from combat.
Military reporters such as Kauffman find FOIA time limits and federal agency compliance with the information act to be major roadblocks to research. Requests take too long — even when reporters request expedition. Reporters may never get the data, or it is redacted to the point of worthlessness. But Kauffman and Chedekel did what the new Department of Defense FOIA liaison recommends — call, follow up and don’t give up.
Kauffman wanted data on mental illness screening from a predeployment questionnaire, data about what prescription drugs were doled out to soldiers and investigative reports into soldier noncombat deaths.
The team talked to other reporters who had experience with military FOIA requests and knew it would be hard, said Chedekel, who has been reporting for 20 years. She has put in many state public records requests, but this was her first experience requesting documents from the military.
Chedekel rarely reads news stories based on public records requests. Many reporters rely on the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Government Accountability Office for data, she said. But local newspapers can file requests for reports on noncombat deaths in Iraq or pursue other human-interest stories that stem from military FOIA requests.
As Kauffman and Chedekel waited for data, they found families of soldiers who had histories of psychological problems and committed suicide within months of redeployment to Iraq.
The investigating duo would have published the series even if they never got the numbers, Kauffman said. They didn’t get everything they asked for, but they got enough.
Negotiating speeds records recovery
One part of a request can stall the whole process. So Kauffman negotiated with FOIA officers to get some records quickly while others were screened or redacted.
“A lot of executing the FOI is a negotiation because getting something today usually beats getting everything three years from now,” Kauffman said.
He recommends knowing the law better than government officials and making sure the documents are public.
“There’s a part of me that wants to be hard about this and demanding,” he said. “And as I’ve aged — if not mellowed — I see the value of compromising and settling for less, even though it kills me to do that.”
Staffing problems can also make it difficult to get documents.
“If they are understaffed, technically, that’s not my problem,” Kauffman said. “I guess they either need to reallocate resources, or push for more money or go back to Congress and change the law.”
Jim Hogan, who is the newly named FOIA liaison officer for the Department of Defense, agreed staffing is a problem.
Agencies need to recruit good people, create a training and certification program for FOIA officers, and increase their pay, he said.
Although President Bush signed an executive order in December 2005 asking agencies to evaluate and improve FOIA processing, there was no mention of much-needed funding.
In the military, not all FOIA officers are in the headquarters office. Many reporters ask for information from officers in the trenches. FOIA officers in Baghdad have to balance FOIA work with other duties.
“It’s tough to get resources — people, money — because we’re at war,” Hogan said.
FOIA offices can be a resource, he said. When a reporter asks for all documents related to a subject, a FOIA officer can help the reporter pare down a request to get records more quickly.
Hogan said reporters are used to getting information within hours or days from public affairs offices, but they shouldn’t expect a quick turnaround from a FOIA request.
Reporter: FOIA a waste of time
Sig Christenson, president and co-founder of Military Reporters and Editors, rarely submits FOIA requests.
“I think the whole system is worthless,” said Christenson, who has been a military reporter for nine years.
When a 16-year-old girl died from an overdose of antibiotics during a routine tonsillectomy performed at a military base, Christenson got a redacted copy of the report. He submitted a FOIA request to get the unredacted version, but was instead sent another copy of the redacted report.
“The trend in government for the last five years has been to stymie any attempt to get information,” Christenson said.
Although he doesn’t use FOIA requests in reporting, Christenson said some military reporters use it as a tool to deal with bullheaded sources.
“If someone is not being cooperative with you, you can FOIA them out the butt and make them wish they never heard of you,” said Christenson.
Instead of working through FOIA, Christenson recommends finding people who will talk and making phone calls. Relying on FOIA can be a waste of time, he said.
Kauffman agrees that FOIA doesn’t work all of the time, but he said reporters should file requests even if they don’t expect to get the data.
“If it’s a waste of time nine times out of 10, then the reporter who sticks it out 10 times is going to win,” he said.
Like Christenson, Kauffman doesn’t recommend filing requests.
Asking for the records is better because government officials can see FOI requests as adversarial.
“Be charitable and optimistic and assume the person denying you something doesn’t know the law.”
Also, asking for the same data from multiple agencies is helpful. Don’t be afraid of wasting someone’s time or self-censoring yourself because you don’t think you’ll get what you’re asking for.
Despite his success, Kauffman gives FOIA mixed grades.
“Maybe we got lucky,” he said. “But to some extent you make your own luck.”
Brea Jones, a 2006 graduate of California State University in Chico, is the Society of Professional Journalists’ Pulliam/Kilgore intern at the Society’s headquarters in Indianapolis. She recently accepted a job at The Record in Stockton, Calif.
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