from the government-as-parent:-because-I-said-so dept
We've seen our share of redacted pages here at Techdirt, covering everything from NSA rules violations to GPS tracking to transcripts of court proceedings. Redaction is a way of life for the government, making a mockery of both the Freedom of Information Act AND this administration's claim that the White House is the most transparent place on earth.
This last claim in particular is ridiculous. The Redacted blog (run by members of George Washington University's research library) has published the following chart, which shows exactly how much sunlight isn't making its way to requested government documents thanks to its favorite FOIA exemption, b(5).
This exemption theoretically covers only the following:
inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agencyIn reality, it covers all of the following, according to Redacted's research.
The Department of Justice’s use of b(5) to censor dozens of pages of a candid history of Nazi-hunting (and Nazi-protecting) by the U.S. government to such a self-defeating extent that former officials leaked the entire document to the New York Times, instead of fulfilling a Freedom of Information request.Also included? Henry Kissinger's notes on telephone conversations, which were withheld for seven years under this exemption. DOJ legal counsel opinions, which by law must be released if the stated suggestions have been officially adopted. The State Dept. even argued that this exemption applied to Presidential Policy Directive addressing the Department's need to be more transparent about its aid plans.
The CIA, supported by the Department of Justice, is currently using the b(5) exemption to keep secret its history of the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, arguing that it’s release “could confuse the public.”
Muckrock’s Shawn Muscrave has reported that The Federal Elections Commission attempted to argue that it’s own guidance on when to apply b(5) is itself exempt from release under b(5) –even though it had already been posted on the FEC’s website.
This is the next FOIA battleground, according to Redacted. The expansive reading of this exemption has lead to the government adopting this as the go-to redaction, applied haphazardly to withhold information from the public. The b is for "broad," or as Redacted puts it, "withhold it because you want to."
The blog points to one of the most ridiculous redactions in a sea of misuse -- the withholding of a State Department employee's hand-scrawled "commentary" on a proposed bill to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Sure enough, b(5) was cited when redacting the opinion ("What a bunch of crap!"), meaning that this penned commentary somehow was an inter/intra-agency "memorandum or letter" not meant for the public's eye. The fact that it was neither and was written on a copy of a publicly available piece of legislation didn't stop the agency from redacting it. Two years later, it was finally forced by the court to uncover the rogue commentary.
"Because you feel like it" sums it up completely. Someone hoped to head off a microscopic bit of embarrassment by abusing the FOIA exemptions and somehow we're expected to believe other b(5) redactions are done with a sense of purpose and restraint.