Cause of Action Institute Joins Coalition Opposing DoD’s Latest Attempt to Create New FOIA Exemption

Cause of Action Institute has signed a joint letter with groups from across the ideological spectrum urging the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Committees on Armed Services to oppose the Department of Defense’s (“DOD”) sixth attempt to undermine the Freedom of Information Act’s (“FOIA”) through a new FOIA exemption.

The DOD proposal would use the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act to exempt from disclosure “information on military tactics, techniques, and procedures, and of military rules of engagements.” The coalition writes:

The Pentagon’s proposed language would undermine FOIA by creating an unnecessary and overbroad secrecy provision at odds with the law’s goal of transparency and accountability to the public…The Department of Defense, and all federal agencies, already have broad and proper authority to withhold classified information under FOIA exemption one, and to withhold unclassified information under a variety of other statutes… We cannot support the proposed language, but we encourage the Defense Department to work with the committees of jurisdiction over FOIA to address the outstanding concerns and accomplish those mutual goals without codifying language that could be easily abused to keep the public and Congress in the dark about our military.

CoA Institute previously signed a coalition letter pushing back on a similar DoD proposal in 2017.

Read the full letter here.

Shining a Light on Agency FOIA Policies that Contradict the Law

Some agencies have regulations that conflict with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which can lead to confusion for officials and the public, as well as the improper withholding of public information.  For instance, a few agencies still base their definition of a “representative of the news media” on language that is outdated and contradicted by both the FOIA statute and judicial authorities.  The old “organized and operated” standard that certain agencies have left in their regulations can be used to deny preferential fee treatment to nascent or non-traditional news media groups, as well as government watchdog organizations like Cause of Action Institute (CoA Institute).  The current statutory definition, by contrast, is meant to broaden the universe of requesters qualifying for the news media fee category.

In Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission,  a monumental decision in 2015 that resulted with an appellate court victory for Cause of Action Institute, the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the Federal Trade Commission’s outdated and narrow definition of a “representative of the news media” and confirmed the current statutory standard.  The FTC had tried to deny CoA Institute its proper fee categorization and a public interest fee waiver.

In March 2018, CoA Institute submitted a comment to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a small agency tasked with delivering foreign aid to combat global poverty, on the agency’s proposed rule revising its FOIA regulations.  Among other things, CoA Institute suggested that the MCC correct its definition of a “representative of the news media.” In July of that year, MCC finalized a rule implementing the recommended revisions and taking a step towards effective and transparent oversight.  CoA Institute has had similar success with FOIA reform at other agencies, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Office of the Special Counsel, U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

This is but one example of the work CoA Institute performs to advance government transparency and protect the rights of the American public, taxpayers and our collective ability to hold our government accountable for its actions.

Matt Frendewey is Director of Communications at Cause of Action Institute.


DoD Watchdog Details Agency’s Failure to Address FOIA Shortcomings

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)

The Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program

In August of 2016, Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) submitted a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request, seeking the following information about the Outer Continental Shelf (“OCS”):

Because of the agency’s failure to release records responsive to this request, CoA Institute filed a FOIA lawsuit on November 11, 2016. Recently, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (“BOEM”) provided its 10th and final production. While CoA Institute is still in active litigation regarding this request, considering the new administration and its priorities, we thought it of value to discuss our findings to date. However, to fully understand the process, we believe that some background on the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”), 43 U.S.C., is necessary.

The Outer Continental Shelf and OCSLA background

The outer continental shelf is made up of “all submerged lands lying seaward and outside of the area of lands beneath navigable waters…and of which the subsoil and seabed appertain to the United States and are subject to its jurisdiction and control.” OCSLA was enacted on August 7, 1953 and governs the policies and procedures related to the OCS. Under  OCSLA, the Secretary of Interior (the “Secretary”) is responsible for the administration of mineral exploration as well as other OCS development (i.e., wind energy).[1] Further, through OCSLA, the Secretary may grant leases to the highest qualified responsible bidder based on sealed competitive bids.[2] OCSLA also provides guidelines for implementing an OCS oil and gas exploration and development program.[3] This program, the Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program, is commonly referred to as the “Five-Year Program”.

Specifications under the Five-Year Program

As provided in the OCSLA, the Five-Year Program shall have a schedule that indicates as precisely as possible, the size, timing and location of leasing activity best suited for national energy needs during the five-year period following its approval or re-approval.[4] In reviewing the five-year program, the BOEM looks at a variety of economic and environmental factors. The timing and location of exploration, development, and production of oil and gas on the OCS shall be based on consideration of eight factors.

These factors are:

“(A) existing information concerning the geographical, geological, and ecological characteristics of such regions; (B) an equitable sharing of developmental benefits and environmental risks among the various regions; (C) the location of such regions with respect to, and the relative needs of, regional and national energy markets; (D) the location of such regions with respect to other uses of the sea and seabed, including fisheries, navigation, existing or proposed sea-lanes, potential sites of Deepwater ports, and other anticipated uses of the resources and space of the outer Continental Shelf; (E) the interest of potential oil and gas producers in the development of oil and gas resources as indicated by exploration or nomination; (F) laws, goals, and policies of affected States which have been specifically identified by the Governors of such States as relevant matters for the Secretary’s consideration; (G) the relative environmental sensitivity and marine productivity of different areas of the outer Continental Shelf; and (H) relevant environmental and predictive information for different areas of the outer Continental Shelf.”

Further, the Five-Year Program provides that the Secretary shall request and contemplate input from federal agencies and the Governor of any State that could be affected under the proposed leasing program. Suggestions from local government executives in states that may be affected, which have been previously mentioned to the Governor of such State and any other person may also be considered. Under 43 U.S.C. §1331,  the term “person” includes, in addition to a natural person, an association, a State, a political subdivision of a State, or a private, public, or municipal corporation.

The Five-Year Program “process includes three separate comment periods, two separate draft proposals, a final draft proposal, a final secretarial proposal, and development of environmental impact statement (EIS).” This process, takes approximately two and a half years to complete. As mentioned above, input from federal agencies, state and local government, and any other person, may be considered. After the Secretary approves the program, the Proposed Final Five-Year Program is sent to the President and Congress. After at least sixty days, the Secretary may approve the program. The Department of Interior cannot offer an area for lease without it being included in an approved Five-Year Program.

The Secretary shall review the leasing program approved under this section at least once a year. After Secretarial approval, the geographic scope of a lease sale area can be narrowed, cancelled, or delayed without the development of a new program. The Secretary shall, by regulation, establish procedures for various steps in the management process. Such procedures will apply to various activities, including any significant revision or reapproval of the leasing program.

This series will continue next week with a comparison between the requirements outlined above and the process that took place during the 2017-2022 planning process.

Any questions, commentary, or criticisms? Please email us at and/or

Katie Parr is a law clerk and Kara E. McKenna is a counsel at Cause of Action Institute.

[1] Bureau of Energy Management, BOEM, (last visited January 3, 2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

Cause of Action Institute Joins Broad Coalition Urging Congress to Reject New FOIA Exemption

Cause of Action Institute has signed a joint letter with dozens of groups from across the ideological spectrum urging the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Committees on Armed Services to oppose a Department of Defense (“DOD”) measure that could undermine the Freedom of Information Act’s (“FOIA”) goal of government transparency and accountability through a new FOIA exemption.

The DOD proposal would use the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act to exempt from disclosure “information on military tactics, techniques, and procedures, and of military rules of engagements.” This proposal represents an effort by the Pentagon – the largest executive branch agency with the largest discretionary budget – to create a FOIA exemption that, if applied broadly, could hide much of the information and documents it creates.

This proposal is both procedurally problematic and unnecessary by DOD’s own practices, and the changes were proposed without the robust consideration and input of the committees with jurisdiction over FOIA. To date, no one has identified a disclosure of information that should not have occurred and that would be protected by this new language. DOD already has authority to withhold classified as well as unclassified information under FOIA for a variety of reasons. The proposed measure would give DOD license to further stretch its ability to shield documents from the public, which could be used to conceal information about matters of compelling public interest, such as the military’s oversight of contractors. This proposal would broaden a very narrowly drawn existing Exemption 3 statute. The risk in exempting more materials from disclosure does not appear to be justified in this case.

Cause of Action Institute shares DOD’s goal of ensuring that information that needs to be withheld for national security purposes is not disclosed.  However DOD’s most recent proposal is not the way to do so.

DOD revises FOIA policies incorporating CoA Institute recommendations

The Department of Defense (“DOD”) yesterday published an interim rule proposing new regulations to implement the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”). The proposed changes are necessary to bring DOD regulations into compliance with the OPEN Government Act of 2007 and the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016, but they also build upon two previous attempts by the agency to revise its FOIA procedures and policies.

Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) submitted comments to DOD about these proposed changes in November 2014 and September 2015. We commended the agency for removing outdated “organized and operated” language from its definition of a representative of the news media—especially in light of the D.C. Circuit’s landmark decision in Cause of Action v. Federal Trade Commission—but also suggested clarification and guidance to ensure the proper application of fees in FOIA cases.

We further recommended that DOD revise procedures for conducting consultations, which take place whenever an agency locates records that originated with or may implicate the equities of another government entity. The process is supposed to ensure that exempt information is properly redacted from records prior to disclosure.  We expressed concern that DOD had failed to establish adequate parameters for determining when consultation would be appropriate.

Finally, we asked DOD to remove or revise a number of problematic provisions dealing with the handling of White House information, the use of the deliberative process and attorney-client privileges, and the preservation and management of records subject to the FOIA.

Although DOD did not chose to adopt additional guidance on fee issues, or to limit consultation along the lines we suggested, DOD’s interim rule does reflect CoA Institute’s influence. For example, the agency chose to reformulate its regulations along the lines of a model regulation produced by the Department of Justice. Guidance of this sort is consistent with CoA Institute’s proposals and was referenced by CoA Institute in its comments. Moreover, DOD completely eliminated or adequately revised the problematic, byzantine provisions to which CoA Institute objected.

CoA Institute’s comment is another small step in our efforts to provide effective and transparent oversight of the administrative state.

FOIA Requesters Misled by Military to Waive Appeal Rights

UPDATE: We added clarification that our numbers concerning SOCOM’s FOIA appeals were taken from

At least two military offices have been found to use a puzzling FOIA request form that may be an attempt to get requesters to give up their rights to appeal FOIA decisions.

The request forms, which are included below, appear on the FOIA web sites of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command(SPAWAR).   In both forms, the offices ask requesters to agree to accept “a releasable copy” of the requested records; however, they fail to expressly inform requesters that electing this option may legally prevent them from appealing if the agency withholds any records.

If requesters do not agree in advance to accept “releasable” records, the forms indicate that their request will be “referred to the appropriate reviewing authority for a final review and release determination.”  This is precisely the procedure that the Department of Defense’s FOIA regulations already require.  Specifically, all Department of Defense FOIA requests must be reviewed by a designated “Initial Denial Authority,” and all decisions to withhold requested records must be explained in sufficient detail so as to allow requesters to decide whether to appeal.

Making matters worse, SOCOM’s version of the FOIA request form implies that the referral procedure described above will dramatically increase the time needed to process the request, noting that “it could take a year” for a decision — essentially coercing the FOIA requester to select the “releasable” records option if they want to receive the production in a timely manner.  As a result SOCOM’s form has effectively minimized FOIA appeals.  During fiscal years 2008 to 2012, SOCOM adjudicated 933 FOIA requests, yet it received zero administrative appeals according to Do the zero administrative appeals accurately reflect that in fact there were no appeals by requesters during this four year period regardless of whether they accepted the “releasable” records option, or are these statistics the result of virtually all 933 FOIA requesters abdicating their rights to appeal?

Notably, these forms do not conform to the FOIA request template recommended by the Department of Defense’s main FOIA office.   Nor are they even consistent with sample request letters provided by the FOIA offices of the Department of the Navy or the Department of the Army.  In the words of Victor Hugo, no army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.  It is time for these forms to go.

SOCOM FOIA Request Form


SPAWAR FOIA Request Form