by Jissel Becerra Reyes
12 Sep 2018
Passed in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was intended to strengthen American democracy by providing a tool for governmental transparency and accountability. FOIA has now existed for more than fifty years, and though it is not without its shortcomings and critics, it has now become a research method among journalists, attorneys, and members of the American public . Both a verb (‘What records will you FOIA?’) and a noun (‘I plan to request a FOIA on that’), FOIA requests are gaining traction as important steps towards access to information, a right that American citizens–and even foreign nationals–should know about and use freely.
What is the Freedom of Information Act?
As the FOIA.gov website states: “The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.”
Although this definition holds true, FOIA requests are much more powerful and encompassing than the definition implies. The reality is, the Freedom of Information Act law allows almost anyone to get access to publicly available records from virtually any agency or governmental body, particularly in the Executive Branch. These agencies can include cabinet departments, military departments, government corporations, independent regulatory agencies, among others.
What is the process of requesting a FOIA?
Depending on the agency, FOIA requests can be relatively quick and straightforward or complicated and dragged out. Moreover, a FOIA request could be free or cost money, and it could be as easy as writing a letter requesting information or as complex as filling out forms, online or via paper.
Regardless, it is this first step of preparing a FOIA request that sets in motion a FOIA process that is more important than that initial request. Researching the agencies from which one is requesting information (or the agency most likely to hold the desired information), following up on one’s request, and in some cases, appealing denials all constitute the FOIA experience, so, as FOIA experts at the National Security Archive and other organizations have expressed, knowing what to expect from the FOIA process is imperative.
The million dollar question though, how long a FOIA request takes, is difficult to answer. Legally, agencies have to respond to FOIA requests within ten days (a response could simply be an acknowledgement that the request was received). However, difficulties in finding the information you are requesting, or the agency’s simple refusal to give certain information, can cause delays or even denials. In the case of a denial, Nate Jones from the National Security Archive advises one to always appeal, as appeals frequently yield the requested information.
Regardless of whether an appeal is necessary, or if the results of a FOIA are different, the FOIA process looks very similar across FOIA requests. For example, MuckRock is a database of FOIA requests in various stages that stores correspondence and outcomes. For example, journalist Emma Best filed a FOIA requesting information regarding the New Jersey’s police monitoring of social media; she identified the agency to which she needed to send the request (the Newark Police Department), specified what she needed (records of social media monitoring policies and guidelines), and after corresponding with the Police Division, received the documents she requested. This case provides a relatively straightforward example of the FOIA process, but it is still useful in exemplifying how to craft a successful FOIA.
Who can file a FOIA?
FOIA requests can be made by anyone: an individual, a corporation, law firm, news organization, or public interest group.
The fact that virtually anyone can file a FOIA makes FOIAs a powerful tool for research and civic engagement. The use of FOIA by citizens and organizations has proven crucial in particular cases, like that of the shooting of Laquan McDonald, a black teen whose shooting by a Chicago police officer was captured on film and subsequently released because of a journalist’s FOIA request. Journalists all around the nation are frequently filing FOIAs to develop their stories, learning the ins and outs of the FOIA law and agencies in the process.
But journalists are not–and should not–be the only ones utilizing this open records law to its full use. For academics, especially historians, classification should not be a research-stopper–rather, it should trigger immediate interest. Why is the government holding certain information secret, and what does that information reveal that we do not know? If our history is to be written accurately, we will have to have all the records made available-–not just those a government department believes we should have.
And it’s getting increasingly easier to get access to those records via FOIA requests. MuckRock, a non-profit launched in 2010, assists in the process of writing and sending FOIA requests by providing sample request letters, contact information for public records officers, and by tracking agency responses. That organizations like MuckRock exist to ease the FOIA process speak to the importance of this law in ensuring that we hold the government accountable and access the information we deserve, whether it be for journalistic endeavors, legal cases, or most pertinent to Swarthmore students and faculty, academic research.
UNREDACTED: The National Security Archive Blog
Requester’s Voice: Jason Leopold
The National Security Archive: FOIA Basics
“How to Break an Information Bottleneck?”
Notes from the Field: The Art of Crafting a FOIA Request
by Jissel Becerra Reyes
24 Aug 2018
As a history major with a special interest in modern European history, stepping into a project focused on Argentine history was a bit daunting. Without necessary in-depth knowledge of the region, I thought I would surely flail and struggle to contribute to the Archive’s ongoing document analysis. Nevertheless, within my first week of the internship, I learned that asking questions, rather than having the answers, and knowing what one does not know help in appreciating the Archive’s collection and declassification projects.
My first week at the Archive can almost be described as a Swarthmore directed reading course, one in which I was the only student and my supervisor, Latin America senior analyst Carlos Osorio, was my professor. My only assignment: read Martin E. Andersen’s Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War.” This book, with its not-so-brief overview of twentieth century Argentine history, provided the basis for my foray into Argentina’s “Dirty War” and the foundation for historical discussions with my supervisor. From the specifics of certain Argentine generals in Videla’s government to broader conversations on U.S. policy towards Argentina, we discussed as much as we could in that first week. But even then, as Carlos made clear, there were nuances in this history, a history that while not covering a wide range of time (1976-1979), was full of diplomacy, secret conversations and understandings, and information only available in the declassified documents at the archive. To fully grasp these nuances, my assignment was to gather as many documents regarding certain topics (e.g., Kissinger’s policy towards Argentina, Operation Condor, etc.), an assignment that was not as clear-cut as I originally thought.
Building a collection of documents under broad historical terms proved an exercise in interpretation. What documents are ‘relevant’ enough, and how do you build criteria for relevance? This question was especially difficult to answer when dealing with subject matter that was classified and/or referred to in diplomatic language, language that is often veiled and implicit. Such was the case with finding documents pertaining to Operation Condor, a secret military operation involving various Southern Cone countries. Thus, while expanding the Operation Condor database, I quickly learned that certain coded language was used to refer to the operation; from ‘collaboration’ to ‘cooperation,’ particular key phrases yielded search results that were part of the process of both finding key documents and understanding U.S.-Argentine diplomacy.
In that regard, language and search skills proved imperative, but ultimately, it was having historical narrative guiding the collection-building that helped me understand how to find ‘key’ documents. With a narrative in mind (e.g., Kissinger’s implicit approval of Argentine human rights procedures), ‘relevancy’ becomes easier to define. Does this document fill in the blanks of the collection’s historical narrative? Does it make it clearer or does it obscure it? Does the document help the collection speak for itself? Those kinds of questions became crucial to creating coherence in my document search, coherence which is particularly needed when reading declassified documents that often come without the contextual information that one would find in a standard history book. Narrative, as a I learned from reading the National Security Archive’s briefing books and from working on my own collection(s), proved to be a final piece in reading and understanding declassified documents.
07 Aug 2017
What excited me the most about diving into this project was the chance to test and scrutinize the broader theories of political science, a lense through which I had viewed Latin American politics in several courses at Swarthmore, on the micro-level through a cache of diplomatic documents. In previous years the joint NSA internship has looked at US and Latin American relations, focusing on certain subsets of cables leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010 in a dump labeled “cablegate.” This year, the focus will be on relations between Russia, China, and Iran, and several “Pink Tide,” or socialist-leaning and socialist governed Latin American countries.
Over the past six months, the world has been confronted with a myriad of complex theories, both domestic and international in their scope, on how, exactly, the 2016 presidential election ended in a victory for Donald Trump. Undoubtedly, one of the most enduring aspects of this tale has been the specter of Russian meddling in the presidential election; from the Democratic National Committee email hacks to potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia, and now, obstruction of justice on the part of Trump in blocking the investigation of the former.
The background noise of our present news cycle certainly weighed heavily on my initial thoughts going into this project and its particular focus on Russian, Chinese, and Iranian economic, political, and military connections in Latin America. Latin America, of course, has a long (and troubling history) as ‘America’s backyard,’ stemming from the Monroe Doctrine and its traditional conceptualization of the western hemisphere as a domain of American hegemony.
I think it’s worth admitting here, before getting further into this, my own biases about the importance of Russian meddling in the US election and, in general, the foreign policy establishment’s heightened worries about Russia that certainly show up in this first batch up cables involving Russian-Venezuelan connections. While I think that potential meddling is worthy of investigation, and some of what has been revealed is quite concerning, I question how much it could have impacted the outcome of the election. For starters, why should we complain about heightenedtransparency within the DNC and the knowledge we gained from those leaked emails? Any observant citizen would have already known that the DNC was actively stacking the table for the Clinton campaign. In this sense, I think the ongoing Russian investigation serves as a convenient distraction that keeps the Democratic Party from analyzing its own internal failings. I think it also feeds into much broader attempts from a range of career foreign policy specialists who seem intent on jumpstarting a new cold war and furthering the revival of a neoconservative and persistently interventionist foreign policy, a model they see as threatened by the Trump administration.
With the above in mind as my own personal lens through which I will be viewing these documents, and the recognition that it is neigh impossible to eliminate all elements of personal bias, it’s time to go over some initial observations from this first batch of cables.
Primary focus #1: Arms Deals
There were three primary areas of focus in these initial cables. The first, starting in November of 2004, was a keen US interest in a series of arms deals between Russia and Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela. The initial sale was a planned exchange of 40 MI-17 Russian transport helicopters, which mustered a great deal of concern from the US embassy. This concern seemed to reach its apex in July of 2005 when the embassy sent a Demarche to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Latin America specialist Dmitriy Yakushev, expressing US discontent at a proposed sale of both AK-103 rifles and MANPADS (shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles).
The US embassy was clearly unsuccessful in its attempts to limit the rifle sale, despite appeals that Venezuela was acting as a destabilizing force, to which Yakushev responded that “he was unaware of any evidence supporting the contention that the GOV (government of Venezuela) permits foreign terrorist groups to operate within its territory or that it is supporting efforts to destabilize its neighbors.”
It was also clear from this exchange the great deal of sensitivity that the Russian government has to diplomatic approaches that fail to treat it as an equal power at the negotiation table. “He (Antonov) also commented that the tone in parts of ref A points (the demarche) was demeaning to Russia. The U.S. should not “speak to us like we are Gabon or Mali,” he remarked. Antonov said that Russia does not and will not give out specific information, such as serial numbers of AK-103 rifles, to others.”
After this exchange, the US seems to accept, grudgingly, arms sales from Russia to Venezuela, perhaps realizing that the State Department had little leverage on this front, at least with the parties at play. At a later point, the US does launch a challenge to Germany for not properly vetting shipments of undeclared weapons through the country, from Russia and destined to Venezuela, but the US was not successful in making inroads against a June 2006 Spanish sale of arms to Venezuela.
Primary Focus #2: Security Council Representation
Another primary point of recurring concern in this first batch of cables is the competing 2007-2008 candidacies of Venezuela and Guatemala for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The US made a concerted effort to garner the support of several countries for Guatemala’s bid, including Greece, Russia, Mexico, Argentina, and others, with varying degrees of success.
Primary Focus #3: Oil and Energy Independence from Russia
The third main point in the first batch of cables was an acute focus on the bankruptcy and sale of the Lithuanian oil refinery, Mazeikiu Nafta, which produced approximately 90 percent of the oil used by Lithuania. The company’s manager, a British expat, repeatedly reached out to the US embassy for advice and guidance. The Russian oil conglomerate Yukos owned a controlling stake in the refinery, but went bankrupt in 2007, and the US was keen on making sure that the shares were sold to a Polish oil company, (which they successfully were in 2008, after a long managerial struggle).
Simultaneously, however, several Russian suppliers cut off their deliveries to Mazeikiu Nafta, and in a bid to regain control and stability, the refinery’s manager sought out contracts with Venezuela, but first sought the approval of the US. The initial cable on this subject included a request from the author for clarification on whether or not this was something that the US could support, and while there was no explicit follow up, opposition was never raised in subsequent cables, only neutral factual follow-ups on the progress of the deal.
In this scenario, it’s quite interesting to witness Russian and Venezuelan oil interests in direct competition, especially within the context of additional cables that assert that joint Russian-Venezuelan oil projects in Venezuela have been almost purely symbolic, with little actual potential for oil revenue at the sites leased to the foreign Russian companies. While it seems clear that the volume and value of the arms deals between the two countries is beyond simple symbolism, this may not be the case on the oil front because of deeper, non-ideological economic factors at play.
Things to look at moving forward:
There are three really interesting and distinct categories that showed up here. The first is a focus on military connectivity and arms deals between Russia and Venezuela, and it will be interesting to see how this topic develops in future cables and involving other countries. The second is the ever-important category of international institutions and their role as a lever for maintaining hegemonic power, another trend worth keeping an eye on. The final piece is the importance of oil for both Venezuela and Russia as petro-states, and the ability of this economic reliance to trump actual cooperation and actual ideological connectivity in challenging US hegemony in Latin America.