The Inspector General (“IG”) for the Department of Defense (“DOD”) recently published its annual compendium of unimplemented recommendations given to various DOD components and military departments in past investigations, audits, and inspections.  The list of unresolved matters is rather lengthy—some issues are more serious, others less so.  Relevant here, the watchdog highlighted two outstanding recommendations concerning the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) and, more specifically, the formalization and publication of Pentagon guidance on “sensitive review.”

Both of these FOIA-related recommendations originate with an August 16, 2016 IG report that was prepared at the request of Senator Ron Johnson, Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (“HSGAC”).  Senator Johnson initiated an investigation in 2015 into interference by political appointees within the Obama Administration in agency FOIA processes.  Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) actively followed the HSGAC inquiry and sued one agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, for refusing to release its response to the Committee.

“Sensitive review” refers to the practice of giving certain FOIA requests extra scrutiny, usually because the records sought are potentially newsworthy or politically embarrassing.  In its most benign form, sensitive review involves notifying an agency’s public affairs team, communications specialists, or political leadership of incoming requests and outgoing productions.  At its worst, it entails the active involvement of non-career officials in processing and redacting records, which results in significant delays and sometimes completely prevents the disclosure of records that the public has a right to access.

Sensitive review has been increasingly in the news.  A week ago, I described CoA Institute’s new investigation into politicized FOIA at the Department of Veterans Affairs, following allegations raised by Democrats on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  Last month, I explained how an official from the Environmental Protection Agency told Ranking Member Elijah Cummings at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the Trump White House had supposedly added an “extra lawyer of review” for “politically charged” or “complex requests.”  And, earlier this year, I revealed records exposing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration for heightening sensitive review by, among other things, targeting attorney and media requesters.

Although recent news reports suggest that “sensitive review” is a novel practice, that is not so.  Intra-agency FOIA politicization, and related practices such as “White House equities” review, did not originate with the Trump White House, but date to the Obama Administration and beyond.  Indeed, as I have explained here and here, the Obama White House was particularly notorious for its efforts to delay and block disclosure of politically damaging or otherwise newsworthy records.  President Trump is taking advantage of President Obama’s legacy of secrecy.

All this is confirmed by the case of the DOD.  In its 2016 report, the IG explained that it had failed to identify any instances of “noncareer officials” either “adversely affecting” or “unduly influencing” the agency’s FOIA process.  But the watchdog’s cautious language and technical phrases failed to mask other troubling practices, including a special “situational awareness process” for “significant” requests.  DOD guidelines governing that process still have not been incorporated into the agency’s FOIA regulations, FOIA manual, or FOIA directive.  (The IG also faulted DOD for failing to update its regulations in light of the Open Government Act of 2007 and Executive Order 13392, but that was remedied with the finalization of new regulations in February 2018.)

CoA Institute has obtained copies of two versions of DOD’s “situational awareness” protocol (here and here), one of which dates to December 2012.  Both records similarly define “significant” requests—that is, requests deserving of special treatment—to include anything likely to “generate media interest” or be of “potential interest” to DOD leadership.  Requests implicating Members of Congress or President Obama, even during his time as a senator, also were included.

In addition to “situational” notification, component FOIA officers were expected to provide weekly updates on “significant” requests to the front office and delay any response or production of records until clearance was provided by departmental disclosure leadership.

This requirement was emphasized for “White House or Congressionally related” FOIA requests.

Although alerting or involving agency leadership, including political appointees, in FOIA administration does not violate the law per se—and may, in rare cases, be appropriate—there is never any assurance that the practice will not lead to severe delays of months and even years.  The danger for politicization is evident.  “Notification” and “situational awareness” can too easily lead to political leadership controlling the disclosure of public records.  That result cannot be tolerated.

Although DOD has yet to incorporate its sensitive review protocol into formal and publicly available guidance, it is also unknown whether the policy has changed or been enhanced in any way in recent years.  Considering the unresolved IG recommendations, CoA Institute has submitted a FOIA request to DOD seeking further information.  We will continue to report on the matter as records become available.

Ryan P. Mulvey is Counsel at Cause of Action Institute

2018 08 08 Final and Approved DOD Sensitive Review FOIA Request (Text)