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.