Homeland Security Redacts Drone Info It Already Released Publicly In Report To Congress

from the oops dept

We’ve noted multiple times in the past that the process by which the federal government redacts documents it’s declassifying and/or releasing publicly is quite arbitrary, and when the same document is released multiple times, the redactions can be totally different. However, the latest screw up along those lines is quite incredible. Last summer, Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol sent EFF a bunch of records in response to EFF’s FOIA lawsuit concerning CBP’s use of drones (CBP later “found” additional records it had neglected to pass along).

Those documents were certainly interesting, but perhaps more interesting (and troubling) is that last fall, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) in Congress had asked DHS for similar information, including “all mission logs related to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s (CBP) drone program from 2010 to 2013.” DHS eventually handed over that information, including many of the same documents it released to the EFF, which were shared publicly. Except… the documents it gave to Congress had many more redactions than the ones they released to EFF.

Senator Tom Coburn’s staff noticed this, and thought it was, well, rather odd, that DHS seems to think that the public can handle the information, while the relevant oversight committee in Congress cannot. Coburn has now sent a letter asking about the differences:

DHS insisted these documents were so sensitive they could not be produced without explicit promises they would be handled with utmost care, and reviewed only by Committee staff. The Department further requested the Committee promise not to release any document without receiving permission from DHS, and to return or destroy all documents when they had been reviewed. The Committee declined to oblige this virtually unprecedented request.

The documents DHS produced are extensively redacted. DHS claims it redacted information relating to activities by other agencies. The release of that information to Congress, it stated, is “under review,” presumably with the other agencies.

My staff has reviewed the logs DHS produced for calendar year 2010. From this limited review, it appears that DHS has redacted information in the documents it provided to the Committee that is not redacted in the same documents DOJ released publicly.

For 2010 alone, my staff has tallied at least 20 instances in which the publicly-released documents appear to contain legible passages which are redacted entirely or in large part from the documents DHS provided the Committee. In other words, DHS appears to have chosen to withhold information from Congress which the DOJ — and, we must assume, DHS — has determined was appropriate to share with the American public. I have attached examples to this letter for your review.

Also of concern is the apparent lack of coordination between DHS and outside agencies, particularly the Department of Justice. DHS stated to the Committee that the passages it redacted were “pending review” with an outside agency. However, a comparison of the redacted passages with the publicly-released documents reveals that several of those passages relate to support for DOJ components, including the FBI. If the DOJ compels public release of documents detailing activities on behalf of its own component, and the documents are subsequently released to the public, it is not clear why DHS would later withhold the same information from Congress in order to consult with DOJ.

Oh, also, Coburn’s staff noticed that some of the documents included don’t appear to have been given to EFF at all, raising a separate question: that even among the newly found documents that DHS is still withholding pertinent information.

Of secondary concern but still significant, my staff noted several instances in which information that was provided to Congress does not seem to appear, even in redacted form, in the public documents released to the public interest group, suggesting that information may have been withheld in full from the organization without explanation or accounting.

Not surprisingly, Coburn is… not pleased with DHS over this.

The Department’s conduct in this matter has impacted the Committee’s ability to conduct its Constitutional responsibilities to oversee DHS operations. It has delayed access to relevant documents, and what it has provided falls short of what it is required to share with anyone, let alone in response to a Congressional request.

For over a year, this Committee has pressed the Department for more information regarding its unmanned aerial vehicle operations. These improperly redacted documents raise even more questions. If these vehicles are being operated in accordance with U.S. laws and in support of the Department’s statutory mission, the lawfulness and efficacy of their operations should be easily demonstrable. This exercise may be said to demonstrate many things, but it does not demonstrate efficiency or transparency. Congress and the American people have a right to expect more from a Department which asks to be trusted with powerful tools and great authorities.

After all this, Coburn orders DHS to hand over “a full, unredacted set of the documents” as soon as possible.

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Comments on “Homeland Security Redacts Drone Info It Already Released Publicly In Report To Congress”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Nice and blunt response to the attempted smoke and mirrors act, but the real question is: will he be willing to follow through when/if the DHS ‘reluctantly declines’ to hand over all the data requested?

The various spy agencies have made it plenty clear that they see the various ‘oversight’ groups as little more than rubber stamps, there to approve their activities and nothing else, it’s going to take some hefty pushback, and quite likely charges filed, to convince them otherwise at this point.

out_of_the_blue says:

And... after achieving relevancy with a Prenda item, it's back to blithering irrelevancy.

You seem to have no sense of proportion in your editor function, just whatever happens to drift down from above.

Running an item after it’s come out in HuffPost isn’t on the leading edge of The Resistance, it’s on the trailing edge of The Establishment. (187 of 193)


Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

two, no three faced politics

All three branches of the US government have shown a serious disrespect for the Constitution. Now that disrespect is showing up between the executive and legislative; and the executive and judicial branches. Political will to correct this situation appears non-existent. Even those in Congress whom decry this petulance do not have the necessary influence to initiate proceedings against either of the other two branches, even though both of those branches have publicly committed acts not consistent with the law of the land. And the public knows it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: two, no three faced politics

Most likely it’s a matter of self-interest, if any of the branches tries to do a little ‘house cleaning’, and hold the others accountable for their actions, it would follow that they would also face consequences for their actions(or inactions in some cases), and none of them wants to be the ones to open that particular can of worms.

Anonymous Coward says:

You know, I think it’s time for a law saying that government agencies cannot redact documents given to the congressional committee that oversees them.

Sure, that will possibly risk some people being put in danger, or some operation being blown if some staffer leaks the documents. However the blunt facts of the matter are that a few people’s lives are less important than keeping government agencies from lying to the elected officials that are in charge of keeping the agencies from running rampant.

keyoke (profile) says:

how doed this work...

I don’t understand how this is supposed to work. Who is in charge of these various departments from an elected official standpoint? If its congress, or a committee of congress, how can a department “redact” information it provides to that governing body?

isn’t that sort of like telling your boss in a status update that “you did [redacted] for [redacted]”? How does that fly?

if there’s nobody overseeing these departments, how can “we the people” be sure that they are operating legally and truly working on behalf of the public?

all these departments, committees, programs, etc. Are just getting out of control..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

There can never be anything like the “clear cut guidelines” you envision because of the subjective element associated with the involvement of people in processes such as this. Two can look at the identical document, read the identical policy, and come quite reasonably to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t see why this is a big surprise:

1) The general population, generally speaking, pays little attention top the information they are provided. They are more concerned with “important” issues like who is going to win American Idol or Justin Bieber getting arrested. And, for the most part, when they do pay attention, there generally isn’t much they do, or can do (both would require time and effort), about it anyways (things like SOPA/ACTA being exceptions rather than the rule.

2)Politicians, generally knowing they are going to be handed their jobs back no matter what they do (as long as they keep talking the good talk to the people, while actually catering to the special interest groups) by and large pay very little attention to what the general population says or does (as long as enough of them stay healthy and passive enough to fill those special interest coffers the politicians suck off of).

Chris Brand says:


“After all this, Coburn orders DHS to hand over “a full, unredacted set of the documents” as soon as possible.”
Wow. The guys at DHS must be quaking in their boots.

It’s not surprising that they feel free to thumb their noses at their overseers like this when those overseers basically respond with “try again”. Now if they were to ground all drone flights for a while, perhaps the DHS would think the’re taking the “oversight” role seriously….

M. Alan Thomas II (profile) says:


I found the headline a bit confusing. I thought from it that the public release had happened in a report to Congress (“Released Publicly In Report To Congress”), not the other way around. Allow me to suggest that, if possible, it be reordered as “Homeland Security Redacts In Report To Congress Drone Info It Already Released Publicly”.

Spaceman Spiff (profile) says:


“After all this, Coburn orders DHS to hand over “a full, unredacted set of the documents” as soon as possible.”

It should have been instead of “as soon as possible.”, “immediately, within 24 hours, or be held in contempt of Congress and remanded into custody!”… Maybe THAT would have gotten the needed attention of DHS and the DOJ.

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