FOIA Requester Gets 292 Fully-Redacted Pages In Response To Request About Federal Funding Of Virus Research In Wuhan

from the do-you-want-conspiracy-theories?-because-that-how-you-get-conspiracy-theories dept

The federal government would prefer information not want quite so badly to be free. It has obligations under the Freedom of Information Act to set information free, but it also has a handy stack of exemptions to ensure not too much information is freed.

Citizens are free to ask for information. And the government is, far too often, free to deny these requests in whole or in part. But it gets really ridiculous when the government releases information but redacts pretty much everything it’s releasing.

It’s a scam. It allows agencies to pad their numbers, showing that they released information in response to requests while not actually, you know, releasing information. A fully redacted response still counts as a response in the stats, which allows agencies to pretend they’re far more responsive than they actually are.

We’ve covered several of these quasi-releases here at Techdirt. In “response” to an ACLU request for information on the FBI’s use of GPS trackers, the agency released 111 fully redacted pages. Still counts as a response! Not any actual information in it!

The FBI did it again in response to journalist Brad Heath’s request for information about the tool used to hack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. What was left unredacted was boilerplate from agreements with the tech company and a few random partial sentences that contributed almost nothing to the public’s understanding of this incident, which was preceded by heated litigation the DOJ hoped would force Apple to break the device’s encryption.

Other times, federal agencies have reacted bizarrely to FOIA requests, apparently motivated by the belief that no information should be released without redactions. This includes redacting publicly available DOJ press releases. The “gotta redact something” attitude also results in inconsistent behavior, like two releases of the same info, with each version sporting different redactions.

The case du jour involves information of extreme public interest: the federal government’s involvement with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One hypothesis of the origin of the COVID-19 virus is that it “escaped” from the Wuhan lab, which specializes in coronavirus research. Prior to the 2020 outbreak, the National Institute of Health (NIH), in conjunction with a New York-based research organization (EcoHealth Alliance) had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute.

For more than a year, The Intercept has been trying to obtain more information about the NIH’s work with the Wuhan Institute. And, for more than a year, the NIH has continued to withhold this information. The Intercept sued. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the NIH agreed to turn over thousands of pages of relevant material.

And it has turned over some of what was requested. But its most recent release [PDF] is all page count, no info. As Sharon Lerner reports, the NIH has decided the public has no right to know anything about whatever it is that’s hidden behind page after page of redactions.

[T]he most recent batch of documents, which the NIH sent The Intercept on Tuesday, underscores an ongoing lack of transparency at the agency. Even as members of Congress and scientists call for additional information that could shed light on the origins of the pandemic, 292 of 314 pages — more than 90 percent of the current release — were completely redacted. Besides a big gray rectangle that obscures any meaningful text, the pages show only a date, page number, and the NIAID logo. The remaining pages also contain significant redactions.

As Lerner points out, some of these redactions may be “technically justifiable.” But the complete redaction of more than 90 percent of this content seems unjustified, especially since there’s intense public interest in understanding the origin of the current pandemic, as well as whatever involvement their own government may have had in the genesis of this coronavirus strain. This simply isn’t acceptable given the ongoing worldwide crisis that is still killing thousands of people a day and has almost single-handedly destroyed international commerce by severely disrupting supply chains.

Unfortunately, the National Institute of Health believes the public doesn’t deserve transparency. And it will likely take several more rounds of litigation to convince it otherwise.

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Companies: first look media, the intercept

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Comments on “FOIA Requester Gets 292 Fully-Redacted Pages In Response To Request About Federal Funding Of Virus Research In Wuhan”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Nothing to hide?

I mean, if the US Government wants to clear itself of unfounded conspiracy theories, it could then just unredact the classified data. Otherwise, they’re not so much unfounded conspiracy theories but well-grounded conspiracy hypotheses that could very well be conspiracy facts.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sadly, the government would go for the easy dodge.

“Hiding non-bad things is necessary when those things involve national security.”

The presumption, which courts too easily accept, is that national security is more important than government accountability.

Then again, this is partially a self-own because the government loves to imply that 1) hiding things is inherently bad and that 2) only bad people would want privacy. In addition, there is still the argument that an unaccountable government can’t be trusted to protect the public interest and hence can’t be trusted to protect national security. Will the courts accept this argument, is the important question.

Rocky says:


You have to remember that regardless of what research they funded in Wuhan, the Wuhan lab is inextricable connected to the pandemic and government will always consider the “optics” of any information released even if it unequivocally shows that nothing nefarious was going on.

I mostly blame this on people who just have to draw the conclusion that something nefarious was going on by taking things out of context since the research was funded by the government. So that can be a motivation for redactions, this of course lead to the other take on redactions, the fuel for conspiracy theorists, they must be hiding something.

Of course, the government also redacts stuff just because they can while for example using national security as an excuse.

TL;DR: The only thing redactions actually lead to are speculation and conspiracy theories when it concerns heavily politicized subjects.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

I’ve seen too many of these fights around conspiracies. This is serious fuel for that conspiracy. It is, in the end the best confirmation there is no conspiracy, as a mildly redacted fake document would much better serve. This release seems so calculated to fuel conspiracy. But as an armchair veteran of these kinds of FOIA wars, I’ve come to realize it’s part of the reason the US populace is so conspiracy prone. The government has done the conspiracy enough, that its desire to over classify just fuels speculation about what they are doing ‘this time’.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:


I for a moment considered that they were playing the odds, that even if they released everything in the open the conspiracy minded would want to see the “Real” reports so why bother.

The government has played lucy with the football for far to long.

We have no idea what is happening anywhere in the government & the fact that the same document can be released with different redactions pretty much shows they aren’t doing it for real reasons.

At some point they need to be held to account, but only the voters could do that and they are to busy keeping horrible people in their jobs so they can win imaginary culture wars.

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