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JPat Brown, Muckrock

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 April 2018 @ 10:44am

FCC Withholds Ajit Pai's Emails Regarding The Infamous 'Harlem Shake' Video

Last December, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai starred in a “PSA” produced by The Daily Caller. In the video, Pai addressed all the “trolls” in the net neutrality debate, reassuring the public that they will still be able to enjoy things on the internet after its repeal. To illustrate this, Pai does the absolute polar opposite of an enjoyable thing on the internet: the Harlem Shake.

That segment actually led to the video being temporarily removed from YouTube after a copyright complaint from the record label Mad Decent.

Curious as to whose idea this was, I filed a FOIA for emails between The Daily Caller and the FCC, as well as any talking points regarding this huge PR coup. Four months later, the FCC responded. The agency found two pages of emails but would be withholding them in their entirety under FOIA’s infamous b(5) exemption regarding deliberative process.

This isn’t even the first time the FCC has used b(5) to deny access to records regarding Pai starring in an embarrassing video – the agency rejected Gizmodo’s request for records relating to a comedy skit in which Pai joked about being a “Verizon puppet,” similarly under b(5).

Read the rejection letter embedded below or on the request page. If you’re interested in Pai and the fight for net neutrality, you can check out his calendar here.

Republished from MuckRock

Posted on Techdirt - 18 January 2018 @ 01:33pm

After The 'Octopus Incident' White House Threatened To Stop 'Menacing Logos' From Spy Satellites

Back in late 2013, we wrote about the insanity of the “logo” placed on a spy satellite by the National Reconnaissance Organization, which consisted — literally — of an octopus enveloping the globe, and the tag line “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach.” Incredibly, the Director of National Intelligence tweeted out this image, just months after the Snowden revelations, and no one seemed to think the public might find it… creepy as fuck. Our good friends at Muckrock decided to dig in with some FOIA requests about all of this and wrote up the following amazing story about the aftermath of the fallout of that decision and posted an excellent story about it which, of all things, includes trying to translate quotes from “Talledega Nights” into Latin to avoid scrutiny. That article, by JPat Brown is reposted, with permission, below.

Records released to William Pierce show that the fallout from the National Reconnaissance Office’s infamous “world-eating octopus” logo was enough for the White House to threaten veto power over future logos on spy satellites. Despite this warning to steer clear of controversy, the designers for the NROL-76 logo tried their best to sneak in a “Talladega Nights” reference – even resorting to Latin to get around copyright.

In early May of 2016, someone within the NRO asked if the mission patch for the NROL-76 mission had been approved.

As launch wasn’t due for a year, the question was oddly premature, and someone on the team voiced their curiosity.

A later email from August 2016 explains the concern – following the embarrassment over the NRO-39’s octopus logo (which records released to Runa Sandvik show was an engineering in-joke that backfired to a comical degree), the NRO wasn’t even sure if it could approve its own logos without the White House’s final say.

As far as they were told, the NRO could still have “ultimate authority” over logos ? so long as they avoided “menacing designs.” Which means “yes” to fluffy animals ?

and “no” to creepy cephalopods and whatever’s redacted here.

Fortunately, the theme for this design was “Lewis and Clark,” which the NRO thought was fairly family-friendly, especially when compared to, say, a dragon with American flag wings.

But we’ll let you be the judge.

If that slogan strikes you as oddly familiar, then congratulations on your excellent cinematic tastes; “If you ain’t first, you’re last” is indeed the catch-phrase of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell’s character from “Talladega Nights.”

The design notes make this explicit, as well as explain that it was chosen as a slogan because one team member “loves NASCAR” and “wanted to go fast.”

From the beginning, the person that appears to be the NRO team leader tried to drop a few hints that they weren’t all that confident a “Talladega Nights” reference was going to (literally) fly ?

before finally giving it the formal nix on copyright grounds.

Undaunted, one team member proposed a sneaky compromise – just Google Translate it into Latin and nobody will notice.

This team member claims the “Latin approach” has worked before, though a quick search shows that it didn’t work out quite as well as they made it sound. And there were a few other minor considerations …

Ultimately, the team leader vetoed all Latin phrases as “hard to understand and remember,” using the NRO’s own motto as an example. A list of pre-approved slogans (including a few redacted ones) was sent to the team, and with a topical joke about the 2016 presidential elections, the matter was put to a vote.

The lesser-known Ricky Bobby quote “Explore – Discover – Know” won out ?

and you can see it here on the finalized logo.

Read the full release embedded below or on the request page.

Posted on Techdirt - 28 December 2016 @ 12:48pm

CIA Admits It Hasn't Touched FOIA Request In Six Years… Says It Will Close Case If Requestor Doesn't Reply

Back in 2011, MuckRock user Jason Smathers filed a FOIA with the CIA for all responses they had sent to requesters containing the term “record systems.” This was a reference to two earlier rejections he had received from the Agency, which cited the inability to perform a search in the system based on the terms Smathers had provided.

In response, the agency sent him partially redacted copies of those same two rejections.

Smathers immediately appealed, on grounds that it beggared belief that he had been the only requester to have ever had an exchange with the CIA that contained the words “record system.”

Six years go by, and we hear nothing from the Agency regarding this request. Then, just this week, this letter arrives in the mail.

Which is worse? The casual admittance that they haven’t done anything for over half a decade, or the unfathomable audacity of putting Smathers on deadline? And while two months sounds pretty generous, keep in mind that they’ve been sitting on this for 72 months — a mere 36 times what they’re giving him.

To give this some further context — Smathers’ request was assigned an internal MuckRock tracking number of 238. If you were to file a request today, you’d be given a number in the 31,000s.

To the CIA FOIA officer (not) reading this: There have been children born since this appeal was filed that you could have a conversation with. This is bad, and you should feel bad. Please don’t be bad, be good instead.

And get rid of that damn fax machine.

Republished from Muckrock

Posted on Techdirt - 12 October 2016 @ 10:44am

The State Department Has Taken Over Three Years On A FOIA Request About How Long It Takes To Process FOIA Requests

Back in 2013, a young Shawn Musgrave filed a FOIA request with the State Department for its cables regarding former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To his surprise, he was given an estimated completion date (ECD) of December 2015 — a full 18 months of processing time.

Curious about where the agency got that oddly specific number from — and with plenty of time on his hands — Shawn filed a follow-up request for any documentation outlining State’s methodology for estimating FOIA completion dates. This is on August 5th, 2013, and he gets an acknowledgement back August 8th, just three days later.

Don’t get used to that kind of timeliness.

Two months later, he’s given his first ECD for this request — December 2013.

Only a few months of processing, perfectly reasonable for operational manuals that FOIA officers should have easily accessible.

Except apparently not, because come December, he’s given a new ECD — May 2014.

Well, okay, we should cut them some slack — as they said, there are extenuating factors, and if they feel they need another five months, that shouldn’t be too big of a deal, so long as they-

Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.

December 2014. A full year since the initial filing. Alright, not great, but how much longer could it take, really?

Oh, come on! Now you’re just being ridiculous, State — the original ECD for the Thatcher docs was February 2015. How could this be a month harder to process than that? Why not just go ahead and take the rest of the year if you’re feeling swamped.

Wait, no, it was a joke, don’t-

Nooooooo. Why are you doing this? Are you just messing with us?

You are just messing us, aren’t you!

Come on, that’s not even a date!

Alright, that’s better.

Wait, no it’s not, that’s actually much worse — how could you possibly need until June? You finally released the Thatcher docs that started this whole mess in May!

… Are we dead? Is this Hell?


It’s October 2016. Shawn Musgrave is a sadder and a wiser man. And we are still waiting for the State Department to tell us how long it takes to process its FOIA requests.

Maybe we’ll wait forever. Maybe we’ve always been waiting.

Or maybe the State Department can hire some new FOIA officers already. Jeez.

Republished from Muckrock

Posted on Techdirt - 30 September 2016 @ 10:37am

CIA Took Three Years To Reject FOIA Request For Criteria For Rejecting FOIA Requests

Curious about what criteria the CIA have for determining if they “can neither confirm nor deny” something? So did Jason Smathers, who back in 2010 filed one of MuckRock’s earliest requests for exactly that. Six years later, he still doesn’t know.

Smathers first filed in October 2010 – to the agency’s credit, they only took a mere two months to get back to him.

Which was followed by two and a half years of radio silence. A follow-up in June of 2013 was finally responded to with reassurances that the request was still processing … which apparently served as a reminder to the agency to finally send the rejection letter collecting dust in the corner.

Ultimately, the CIA cites no fewer than three separate exemptions, including what appears to be a “Schrödinger’s b(5),” all for what should be some basic FOIA processing manuals.

How do we know that? Well silver lining/insult to injury, Smathers filed the same request with the NSA, and though they too took three years to process it, they actually delivered.

But you know what they say – one agency’s basic documentation is another agency’s matter of national security. Not to mention a FOIA requester’s complete waste of time.

Republished from

Posted on Techdirt - 27 May 2016 @ 07:39pm

The NSA's Guide To The Internet Is The Weirdest Thing You'll Read Today

The NSA has a well-earned reputation for being one of the tougher agencies to get records out of, making those rare FOIA wins all the sweeter. In the case of Untangling the Web, the agency’s 2007 guide to internet research, the fact that the records in question just so happen to be absolutely insane are just icing on the cake – or as the guide would put it, “the nectar on the ambrosia.”

MuckRock’s Michael Morisy initially requested the guide after finding an entry on Google Books. A month later, the NSA responded with a complete release, minus the authors’ names …

Which was a bit odd, seeing as Michael had provided them in his initial request. But hey, gift horses and all that.

Now, at 650 pages, there’s far too much to go into in depth here, but fortunately, as you can see from the table of contents…

you don’t have to go very far before this takes a hard turn into “Dungeons and Dragons campaign/Classics major’s undergraduate thesis” territory.

The preface employs a comical number of metaphors to describe what the internet is and isn’t – sometimes two a paragraph. But don’t take our word for it!

According to the NSA, the internet is …

A Persian’s personal library:

Sisyphus’ boulder …

A Freudian psycho-sexual pleasure palace …

A Borgesian world-consuming knowledge-cancer …

A labyrinth (with bonus Mino-Troll):

Two quick asides – one, in case your memory needed jogging as to what a clew was, the footnote helpfully provides that information …

and two, before you cry foul that the beast in the center of the labyrinth is clearly a centaur, Ovid technically just describes the Minotaur as “half-man and half-bull” without specifying which half is which, so that interpretation is valid, if a bit needlessly obscure.

But while we’re on the subject of pedantic footnotes …

A shape-changing sea-god:

And finally, jumping ahead 600 pages, an endless frontier/a cemetery of dead ideas/a reminder of your aunt’s 15-minutes of fame:

After that journey of discovery, Untangling the Web ends perhaps the only way it could: with a back cover design that looks cribbed from a ?90s Christian rock album.

Read the full thing embedded below, or on the request page:

Posted on Techdirt - 17 March 2016 @ 11:45am

MuckRock's FOIA Redaction Hall Of Shame

This week is Sunshine Week, and the good folks over at FOIA site have encouraged us to repost this wonderful/horrifying post on the worst FOIA redactions. You can also view the original MuckRock’s FOIA redaction hall of shame over at their site.

If you only have a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail — and as we’ve learned over the years from many an overenthusiastic FOIA officer, if you only have a Sharpie, then every document looks classified. As part of our Sunshine Week coverage, we put together a list of the most ridiculous redactions we’ve (un)seen.

Amtrak’s Yes We Have No Snack Car

It took Amtrak a little over nine months to process Conor Skelding’s request for complaints regarding its lounge cars. While at first that may not seem like the kind of task that would require the same time it takes to fully gestate a human being, it appears that the FOIA officer took Conor’s request a bit … literally and redacted all complaints except those regarding the lounge car, giving you gems like this:

And this one, a horrifying short story in its own right.

B(6), the Beyoncé Exemption

In 2013, there was controversy abounded when The Times of London alleged that Beyonc?’s perfect rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” during Obama’s second inauguration was the work of lip-syncing. Unperturbed, MuckRock’s founder Michael Morisy seized on this as an opportunity to use FOIA to release those tracks, providing public-domain Bey for all. Sadly, his efforts were thwarted by a combination of FOIA not working that way, and of all things, John Williams. Yes, that John Williams.

Adding insult to injury (a phrase that will come up more than once in this article), Michael’s follow-up request for the processing notes on his request included a very notable omission.

Yes, despite it being a request about the very public performance of a very public figure, Beyoncé’s name was redacted, fittingly, under b(6), FOIA’s privacy exemption …

But what a strong, independent b(6) she is.

Bureau of Prisons’ Record Breaking Non-release

Also in 2013, the Justice Department’s Criminal Division was widely ridiculed for “releasing” 15 completely redacted pages to the ACLU.

Well, apparently there’s a inter-departmental competition on wasted ink, because earlier this year, fellow DOJ component the federal Bureau of Prisons responded to Beryl Lipton’s request for contracts with nearly 150 functionally blank pages … and to add insult to injury (see?), each page was rendered in an inexplicably hideous shade of bureaucratic yellow.

Adding additional insult to the already insulted injury, this was a physical release, so each of those pages had to be scanned in manually.

The CIA’s Redaction Game Goes Meta

While we wrote about this just last week, we’re only now grasping the implications – the CIA spent over a year on John Kirsch’s request regarding JFK assassination researcher Mary Ferrell, and their final response was just a copy of his original request, with the very dead Ferrell’s social security number scratched out.

Which means the CIA have achieved the impossible and managed to release less information through FOIA than we had to begin with. Begrudging respect, that’s taking “less is more” to the next level.

The DEA’s Pretty Sure You’re Okay with  

Back in 2014, CJ Ciaramella received training slides from the DEA regarding the sinister-sounding, and ultimately, sinister-being practice of “parallel construction,” which encourages agents to hide evidence chains obtained from covert surveillance techniques, particularly the ethically ambiguous ones. To that end, the instructor differentiates between methods that Americans are chill with and ones that they are decidedly less chill with. Number one among chill-with methods is  .

While the fact that this method is so acceptable you don’t even need to know its name might raise some eyebrows, this next slide should assuage all your lingering legal doubts.

See? Nothing to worry about.

Somehow, what was left in the slides manages to be even less comforting that what was taken out – including some not-at-all-inappropriate Dirty Harry trivia to make sure folks are paying attention.

The IRS’s Mission: Incredible Waste of Time and Money

Last year, Alex Richardson filed several requests to the IRS regarding their embattled Whistleblower’s Officer, which has been charitably described as “intentionally undermined.” Seeing as the agency had already gone far enough to break out the “neither confirm nor deny” denial on the subject, we didn’t get our hopes up … which is why we were caught off-guard when a CD of “responsive documents” arrived in the mail.

Even more enticingly, the CD was encrypted, with a note that further instructions would come in the mail. Cue strings.

Sure enough, a day later those instructions came, and even though they were a tad on the underwhelming side (the passcode turned out to be “FOIAis” and the tracking number) we were eager to get our hands on the obviously valuable information contained therein, which turned out to be … six completely redacted pages.

At least one staff member self-destructed in 30 seconds.

Finally, to add iInsult to iInjury, the encryption program only works on Windows – so Apple users can’t even access the nothing they’ve got.

The NYPD’s Pigpen Exemption

Not all redactions are intentional – after Shawn Musgrave successfully fought the NYPD’s claim that he hadn’t “reasonably described” the very specific form he had requested by using the very specific form number, they relented and handed over a copy. Although, apparently, first they rubbed a diarrhetic squid over it…

…and then they handed over a copy. Significantly more legible was the cover letter that came with the release, demanding a $1.25 for copying fees. Insult, injury, etcetera.

In a rare FOIA-ry Tale ending, Shawn pushed back on grounds that, well, he was kinda actually hoping to read the thing, and the NYPD coughed up a clean copy. As for our calimari friend, looks like they were adopted by the FCC.

The Sobering, Staggering Conclusion

Five years ago, before everyone and their libertarian uncle were up in arms about bulk data collection, Jason Smathers requested talking points from the NSA. Nearly two years later, this request produced perhaps the pinnacle of the FOIA officer’s art form – “These are sobering findings.

Often imitated …

…but never duplicated, we keep the original copy above the MuckRock coffee machine as a daily reminder that sunlight isn’t just the best disinfectant…

…but it’s a pretty decent check on self-importance, too.

Happy Sunshine Week, everybody!

More posts from JPat Brown, Muckrock >>