Across America, Sunshine Is Under Attack

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Here at MuckRock HQ we’re wrapping up Sunshine Week by requesting reports from mayors’ offices of just about every Occupy movement we can find. While we’ve had a good run of luck with officials at all levels of government lately, we thought we’d take time to highlight ways that officials at all levels of government are trying to dial back transparency.

Here are a few instances – some unfolding just this week – that show your right to access public information is never far from danger.

Strengthening executive privilege

In many states (including our home state of Massachusetts) , governors have exemptions to freedom of information requests that keep records such as emails and other correspondence out of view. But sometimes privilege leads to entitlement. One example is Maine Governor Paul LePage, who after making a campaign promise to increase transparency is working to restrict working papers and other “interoffice and intraoffice memoranda” from public view.

The legislation, which passed from committee to the House and Senate, is opposed by Maine journalists. But, as reported in the Bangor Daily News, a LePage attorney said without the exemption the governor would simply stop writing things down.

Blocking access

While the public has been given some access to court hearings for the accused WikiLeak source Bradley Manning, the most recent motions and orders filed in the case have not been made available to the press.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports, journalists have demanded that the Defense Department loosen its grip, noting in a letter signed by 47 organizations that “the interest in openness in this case is not mere curiosity but rather a concern about the very integrity of this nation’s military courts — their ability to oversee the proceedings by which military personnel have their day in court to answer to and defend against allegations of serious offenses.”

The right to lobby in private?

In the waning days of the most recent Virginia General Assembly session, a bill that would shield the names of individuals writing in to legislators passed by with little notice. The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Mark Cole, told the Virginia Statehouse News that his goal is to protect the privacy of those contacting local governments “about child support or disciplinary issues in school.” The reality, however, is that the bill changes the long-held standard that interactions between officials and the public are, in fact, public.

The legislation still requires Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature.

Bin Laden files missing

While James Madison’s home state isn’t showing his legacy much love, the Obama Administration is continuing to earn criticism for its less than stellar transparency practices, ranging from business-as-usual “not for attribution” discussions with administration officials to stating photos documenting the death of the most wanted man in the world can’t be found.

Photos of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden had been known from the first reports of his death. A request sent in May, however, wasn’t rejected because of expected security considerations. Instead, Department of Defense officials have said the documentation simply can’t be found. The AP reported a similar response to its request this week.

Introducing MuckRock Assignments

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I’m happy to unveil a new MuckRock feature tonight that we think holds a lot of potential down the road: MuckRock Assignments. Assignments are a simple way for our members to get free requests and a little recognition for the great ideas they have, while helping us improve the site experience for everyone else. The idea is simple: We’ve set up a new page where we list a number of open assignments, everything from submitting a specific type of request to helping us catch typos. When you’ve completed one of the assignments, simply e-mail us and let us know, and we deposit the rewards in your account.

Right now, there’s five different assignments to choose from, but we’ll be adding and expanding this section (as well as automating certain assignments) as time goes on. We want to reward our members for all the hard work they do, while encouraging smart, engaging requests that make a difference. We hope to use MuckRock assignments to spur widespread investigations at the local level down the road by encouraging users to focus on certain areas, whether its government spending, school safety and restaurant health, but in the meantime we’d love to hear what you think. In the near future, we’ll also start highlighting those who claim various Assignments, giving them a little taste of the spotlight while helping new members see how the best of the best operate.

Thanks as always for your support, and please let us know what you think.

Carrier IQ responds to FBI’s FOIA response

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We typically don’t traffic with PR, but given the wide-ranging interest in our release of the FBI’s Carrier IQ response, I wanted to share the following e-mail:

Just to clarify all of the media frenzy around the FBI.
Carrier IQ has never provided any data to the FBI. If approached by a law enforcement agency, we would refer them to the network operators because the diagnostic data collected belongs to them and not Carrier IQ.

Carrier IQs data is not designed to address the special needs of law enforcement. The diagnostic data that we capture is mostly historical and won’t reveal where somebody is and what they are doing on a real-time basis.

Hope this helps answer some of your questions.
Thanks,
Mira

Mira Woods
Marketing Communications
Carrier IQ

My question was and is, “Does the FBI have manuals or instructions on how to access Carrier IQ data?”.

MuckRock now rocking in 11 states

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We’ve been working hard to update things on the backend for the past few months, and are happy to announce that we now cover 22 percent of the United States by state (including all of New England), plus DC and Federal level requests.

Specifically, you can file in:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Vermont
  • Washington

If we don’t cover a city you’d like to file in in one of those states, just shoot me an e-mail. Most cities can be added in less than 24 hours. We eventually plan to expand to all 50 states as well as the territories, and then who knows: Maybe we’ll head to Canada.

Postmarking Post-Haste: One tip for faster FOIA

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I’m a very guilty procrastinator: The oldest e-mail in my inbox, currently, is May 27 and all it requires is a print out and mail a simple letter. Thankfully, I’m not alone. On MuckRock, we date the updates we get as following:

  • If they’re sent via e-mail, we date them the day we receive them, which is almost always the day they were sent.
  • If they’re sent via mail and the there is a postmark date, we use the postmark date.
  • If they’re sent via mail and there is no postmark date, we use the date at the top of the response.
  • If they’re sent via mail and there is no postmark date and no date at the top of the response (very rare), we use the day we receive it.
  • If it looks like something has gone horribly wrong in the delivery process, either an e-mail was bounced back, a letter come in without a response and they resend the response, etc., we make a judgement call but err in favor of giving what we think was the date the response was originally sent out.

So we rarely compare postmark dates to letter-sent dates, but it’s fairly easy for you to do as a MuckRock user. Above I just stumbled on one epistle that apparently took 11 days to go from writing to stamped and mailed. Makes me feel slightly better about my own inbox.

If you’re curious, that letter was from the Department of State.

My testimony before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight

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I testified today in a hearing before Massachusetts’ Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight regarding two pieces of public records reform which the committees are considering. The proposed legislation brings some much-needed updates to Massachusetts’ public records law, and the only objections I heard being voiced today were concerns of cost. I’ll try and address those concerns in another post in the future, but I wanted to at least share my testimony, which includes a number of never-before-seen stats Mitch helped pull the day before.

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FOIA Friday: Money Mishegoss in Michigan and Other Stories

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Court Orders Obama Justice Department to Justify Some of Its Withholdings on Black Panther Scandal: During the 2008 Presidential elections, several members of the New Black Panther Party were implicated in a voter intimidation scandal. Fast-forward a few years, and independent watchdog group Judicial Watch has requested documents relating to the dismissal of the aforementioned trial. After a period during which the DOJ refused to release said information, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton has now ordered the Obama administration to either release the requested documents or provide acceptable justification relating to their unattainability.

Transit Agency Demands $300 to Reveal CEO’s Salary: It would seem that Michigan state agencies have a habit of overcharging for FOIA request fulfillment. Back in aught-9, the State Police placed a $5.9 million price tag on the information regarding the state’s use of Homeland Security grants from 2002-2009. A few days ago, in Muskegon, MI, the city of Muskegon informed requesters that it would cost $300 to acquire data from the Muskegon Area Transit System on the salary and benefits of the authority’s CEO. This is an age-old anti-FOIA technique at work, one we’ve run into at Muckrock as well: drive away truth-seekers with exorbitant prices.

Romney’s Pitch to S&P Included Tax Hikes: In local news, Slate reports on the results of a FOI request that show how Mitt Romney convinced S&P—yeah, that name may sound a little familiar—to upgrade Massachusetts’ credit rating from AA- to AA. Not at all shockingly, he did so by pointing to tax increases, not—as many politicians claimed as the reason for S&P’s downgrade of the US’s credit rating—spending worries.

FOIA Lawsuit Forces CIA to Release Bay of Pigs Details: Finally, of potential interest to all the historians among us is this tidbit: The CIA is finally releasing the details of the Bay of Pigs operation through FOIA procedures. To follow the release and analysis of the information, check out the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which gets credit for the successful request.

FOIA Friday: This Was a Triumph

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As some of you may have noticed, America didn’t default this past week! So that’s one bit of good news. Of course, we still have to deal with all the factors involved in putting us in this economic situation, but not defaulting’s a good place to start! And since our government gets to keep on operating, we get to keep on making FOI requests. Here are some of the more interesting news tidbits along those lines:

Senate Passes Faster FOIA Bill Again Amid Growing Criticism: Here we go again. After a recent attempt (the fourth, in fact) to pass a Faster FOIA bill failed because of debt ceiling legislation that was tacked on, the Senate has once again passed a Faster FOIA bill (lucky number. . . five?) putting the onus on the House to finally make the bill law. The current model would “establish a panel to look into agency backlogs, analyze the hurdles facing requests and make recommendations to Congress and various government agencies after one year,” which sounds like a good step to me, but many open-government advocates say it’s simply going to create yet another meaningless commission. It may not matter, though, since the House has been the FOIA-bill-killer for a while now.

Court refuses to hold CIA in contempt over video destruction: Man, it’s enough to make you think the CIA might be hiding something, isn’t it? In the latest news in a suit brought by the ACLU against the agency in 2004, the U.S. District Judge presiding refused to hold the CIA in contempt even though the agency allegedly destroyed videos of harsh interrogations of terror suspects. The ACLU has been trying for years to being the CIA to task for their overly-harsh interrogation methods, but now Judge Hellerstein is, other than making the CIA pay the ACLU’s legal fees, letting the agency get away with destroying—and lying about destroying—some of the most solid evidence the ACLU could have brought forward. Never a group to be stopped easily, though, the ACLU is already fighting for the release of more documents that the CIA has up til now kept hidden away.

MariAn Gail Brown: Connecticut Supreme Court slaps down FOI Commission: From the Connecticut Post: Glastonbury native Karen Emerick had become a little suspicious of the Glastonbury Ethics Commission. After filing FOI requests with the group, she was vindicated in her suspicions: the commission was holding secret meeting that citizens were never told about nor given the opportunity to attend. The CT FOI Commission ruled that the Ethics Commission needed to provide full minutes of all private meetings. The commission failed to do so. Thrice more they tried to hide their activities from the public and thrice more Emerick filed complaints. Finally, the FOI Commission ordered the Ethics commission to maintain audio recordings for all closed-door meetings for the next three years. Reasonable for a commission that had shown a complete lack of concern for transparency, right? Well, apparently the CT Supreme Court would disagree, as it ruled that the FOI Commission overstepped its bounds. The Court reversed the order to the questionably-ethical Ethics Commission.

Can FOI requests be submitted on Twitter? Yes, says ICO: In some interesting FOIA news from across the pond, journalism.co.uk reports that the Information Commissioner’s Office (the independent authority in charge of, among other things, the upholding of FOI laws) sent out a newsletter clarifying a murky issue. Now, apparently, Twitter is a viable method of submitting a FOI request to an agency; as long as your Twitter account has your legal name attached to it, submitting a question to an agency’s official Twitter page counts as submitting a FOI request and, as such, agencies are required to address such a request within 20 business days.

FOIA Friday

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One year waiting period for Illinois’ FOIA “recurrent requestors”: In Illinois, a new bill in the state senate has a provision that marks anyone submitting more than 5o FOIA requests a year as a “recurrent requestor”, for whom the state government can delay the FOI process for up to a year. The governor has until August 26th to make a final decision on the bill.

ACLU Files FOIA Over Perry Prayer Event: Governor Rick Perry of Texas, in a controversial move, is holding a “prayer meeting” for the state next month, which the ACLU finds more than a little suspicious. Perry claims all the meeting’s funding comes from an outside organization, but the ACLU has filed to see if any state funds are utilized.

Transparency Groups Assail House GOP Maneuver to Send Debt Bill to Senate: Speaker of the House John Boehner has made himself an enemy of many government transparency groups this week in his haste to get his debt reduction plane passed in the Senate. Instead of waiting for the bill to go through the House, he’s attached it to another bill, the Faster FOIA Act, in order to force it to be voted through quickly. Watchdog groups are offended and advocating against the move because it attaches partisan politics to government transparency.

FOIA: The public cannot access texts and emails from personal devices: Finally, from Champaign, Illinois comes this recently-completed FOIA request from the Post-Gazette. The core of the response is a reminder that, according to FOI laws, the public cannot receive private mobile communications, even those of lawmakers and civil servants.

MuckRock’s Top 10 Most-Requested Agencies

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Curious which agencies people are curious about? Mitch recently ran the numbers and broke down the top agencies – well, all agencies really – receiving FOIA request from MuckRock users. The top ten are below, but there are a lot (104) of agencies that have received only a single request from MuckRock users. You can download the complete list after the top 10.

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation 69 requests
  2. Central Intelligence Agency 57 requests
  3. Department of Homeland Security 23 requests
  4. Marines 18 requests
  5. Office of the Secretary of Defense 16 requests
  6. Department of State 16 requests
  7. Under Secretary Office of Intelligence & Analysis 15 requests
  8. National Security Agency 9 requests
  9. Federal Communications Commission 8 requests
  10. Army 8 requests

Download the full list of agencies and the number of requests they’ve received.

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