The Pentagon FOI request logs, requested by blogger Michael Petrelis, showed — unsurprisingly — that journalists make only a small number of the 10,000 requests received by the DOD since 2000, that the National Security Archive makes the most requests, and that party hacks use it to dig dirt on their opponants.
Why do jounralists account for such a a small proportion of FOI requests to the US Department of Defense and when great non-profit research organisations like the National Security Archive make so many?
In short, It’s not because individual journalists are lazy; there are structural forces at work here:
Off the top of my head, I think of a couple of big FOIA media moments over the last few years that only came to be because of the actions of non-media organizations—like the ACLU’s ongoing torture FOIA battles or Russ Kick’s photos from the Dover mortuary. Eric Umansky went a long way towards explaining the gaps in this Slate piece. As not so surprisingly turns out to be the case, media organizations are reluctant to use FOIA because, well, it’s really, really hard. Requests can take years to fill, or spawn long, drawn out lawsuits. And of course, that takes money and time—two related things that are getting rarer and rarer in journalism. It seems we have another thread here in the story of the decline of investigative reporting.
The other issue the release of this Pentagon document has raised is whether there is anything unethical about disguising the true purpose of an FOI request.
Like Justin Mclachlan (but unlike Raw Story’ Ron Brynaert), methinks “no”. I have no problem with party operatives filing requests without disclosing their affiliation. There is no requirment in most open government laws to explain the purpose to which you will put the information, and there are plenty of good reasons to request documents pseudo-anonymously.
If an open government law like the US FOIA creates a “right to know” equal for all citizens (or indeed non-citizens), officials should not have the capacity to question why someone is requesting information. In practice, however, they do.
I’ve recently done a lot of research on how FOI laws are used by journalists in various countries including the United States. A common finding is that “politically sensitive” requests tend to be treated differently from the bulk of relatively uncontrovertial requests, with special channels of political oversight created to handle the administration of such requests.
Research from Canada suggests that requests that officals assume to be controvertial — like those obviously from journalists or political researchers — tend to be scrutinised more carefully and take longer to process than other requests in a process known as “amberlighting”. Similar things appear to be emerging in Britain — but of course this is all top secret.
Commercial requesters are sometimes concerned that aggressive use of FOI requests about government contracts will sour relations with procurement officials they depend upon for business and therefore use proxies to make requests for them.
To avoid such subtle forms of FOIA discrimination, disguising the motives behind requests is just good practice.
We tend to assume that FOIA requests come from journalists and citizen groups acting in the public interest. Consequentially, we may not like the fact that in practice, the major use of FOIA is actually commercial and political interests using it as a taxpayer-subsidised competitive intelligence research tool. But giving agencies the power to question the purposes to which disclosures are put is a receipe for new justifications of secrecy. No journalist or blogger should be advocating that.