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Freedom of Information? Fifteen Months Waiting for Four Blank Pages

Last year, PJM made a FOIA request regarding who flew to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Why did it go all the way to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and why was everything redacted?

by
Patrick Richardson

Bio

April 7, 2011 - 12:25 am

Back in December 2009, my colleague and — I flatter myself — friend Richard Pollock, PJM Washington bureau chief, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Air Force asking for some fairly routine information.

It was just after the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen. He wanted to know who was on the Air Force flights to Copenhagen — including Air Force One. And he wanted to know how much taxpayer money was spent flying these people back and forth, how much baggage, etc.

There was a bit more to it than that, of course, but it was still pretty innocuous stuff. The volume of fuel used in the flights and how much the baggage weighed, as well as who was on all the flights, is information kept by the Air Force as a matter of course. This request should have taken about 20 minutes with a file cabinet to fill. Additionally, while this information would be classified (also as a matter of course), none of it was national security information. We all know the president went to Copenhagen and came back empty-handed.

Fast forward 15 months.

Richard finally got a response — four blank pages.

Well, not completely blank. They had departure and arrival times for four airplanes, but everything else was redacted and referred to the Secret Service.

This was the culmination of 15 months of slapstick back-and-forth which would have done credit to a Buster Keaton movie.

The first response Richard got was an extension letter. (Legally, agencies are supposed to act on a FOIA request within 20 days. That almost never actually happens, of course, unless they’re doing what FDIC did to us — telling you to pound sand.) Candice Velasquez, a civilian employee of the Air Force, wrote in an email dated Feb. 5, 2010, that this very simple request was too broad:

This message is in response to you 23 December 2009 Freedom of Information Act request for information related to recent transportation of USG officials to and from the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. We are unable to process your request, because it is too broad. The records desired is the responsibility of the member of the public who requests the records. The requester must provide a description of the desired records to enable the Air Force to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort. We are holding your request in abeyance until we receive your clarification.

Richard, who it must be said is pretty good at his job, sent back a clarification letter as requested, basically telling them they’d best pony up or our lawyers would be in touch.

Velasquez then decided delay was the best tactic and sent Richard a letter on March 15, 2010, telling him they needed an extension:

To process your request properly, we find a time extension is necessary because the amount of records we have to review. We will respond to you by 29 March 2010.

All well and good, except March 29, 2010, came and went and there was no response — until April 9, 2010, when Velasquez sent another extension letter:

We find we are unable to meet the time limits of the FOIA because of the sustanial [sic] amount of records to be reviewed. We’ll continue to keep you informed on the status of your request.

By June 2010 this routine request had been kicked all the way up to the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s office and the White House.

Richard, who got the four blank pages during the first part of March of this year, was understandably upset that the response to his very simple request was essentially: “screw you.” He asked me to make a couple phone calls to see if I could get some answers as to why it had taken 15 months to come up with four blank pages.

My first call was to the Air Force District of Washington Public Affairs Office, where a friendly female airman looked up our request and told me their initial search generated 150 total documents, not four, but once they’d transferred the case to Andrews Air Force Base and Candice Velasquez it was out of their hands.

She said there was an exemption used on some of the data — FOIA exemption No. 6, which allows the redacting of personal information like Social Security numbers and such — but that far more than four pages were sent.

I then managed to contact Brandon Gaylord at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and he said that all they had was just those four pages. But, he said, the Air Force told him they were “getting close to a release.”

Fair enough, I thought. Back to the Air Force, where I tried to contact Candice — only to find out she no longer works there.

Her replacement, Denise Rodgers, was as helpful as she could be under the circumstances, but said the DoD hadn’t “let us know if we can answer our part yet.”

Rodgers was stunned by the 150-page figure I’d been given, and promised to find out what that was about. They had a lot more than four pages, she said — indeed, 29 of them — but they didn’t know when they’d be able to release them.

She also said the holdup was because of the number of agencies involved in the request (a request, it must be noted, for information that any commercial airline could probably provide in about 15 minutes on their computer system).

I did get an email back from her saying she’d spoken to the same airman I spoke to, and that her total included email correspondence which was “not responsive” to our FOIA request.

Needless to say, we’ll probably be filing another FOIA request to see those emails.

Having gotten no real response from anyone, and feeling like I was stuck in a Laurel and Hardy movie, I then called the Secret Service to try to find out when or if we would find what was stuck underneath those nice white boxes in the four pages we did get.

I spoke to a Max Millen, who informed me that obviously if the information was redacted that meant we weren’t allowed to have it and “you would have to file a FOIA request with us.”

Ahem: we need to file a FOIA request to get the information we filed a FOIA request to get. Transparency!

At this point, I’m just as curious who was on those flights as Richard is. There’s no national security reason to prevent the release of that information. My guess? This was a nice little European vacation for friends and family members of the government officials who went, and the administration would like to avoid the embarrassment of the American public finding out we had a bunch of bureaucrats taking a multi-million dollar vacation on the taxpayer dime.

But without the names, there’s no way to know for sure.

I also know that for an administration which two years ago promised to be the most open and transparent administration in history, this is standard operating procedure. Indeed the Associated Press found the Obama administration has the worst FOIA response record of any presidency.

There’s no reason not to release the information Richard asked for unless you have something to hide, and certainly no reason to kick a routine request from a reporter all the way up to the secretary of Defense unless it’s something you really don’t want a reporter to know.

Patrick Richardson has been a journalist for almost 15 years and an inveterate geek all his life. He blogs regularly at www.otherwheregazette.com, which aims to be like another SF magazine, just not so serious.
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