As a keen user of the Freedom of Information Act I have filed many requests over the years. This week I delve into some of my personal experiences with FOIA requests explaining what worked and what didn’t, which requests were successful and unsuccessful, and why. I discuss the latest success: getting over 1600 pages of new material from the Pentagon’s entertainment propaganda office, how it came about and why it was successful. I finish up by offering some advice to people making FOIA requests, in the hope of helping to maximise their chances of getting useful material released.
As those of you who follow my work at Spy Culture will know, I have been trying my best to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out more about the media and propaganda units of the security services, particularly the Pentagon’s Entertainment Liaison Offices. Last year I managed to get lists from the DOD, the Air Force and the National Guard of every major movie they gave production assistance to – or at least every movie they are willing to tell us about. I also got a list from the Marine Corps office of every film and TV show that their archive has records on, whether or not they ultimately granted them assistance. I’ve also obtained records from the CIA, FBI and other agencies.
However, I have also filed numerous unsuccessful requests with agencies and government departments all over the world. It’s probably about 50-50, about half and half successful vs unsuccessful requests. I also follow or have followed quite a lot of other people and organisations and websites who use FOIA to unearth new material. For example, when I was working on the 7/7 case I followed the website of the July 7th Truth Campaign who filed hundreds of FOIA requests relating to numerous aspects of 7/7. These days I follow, among others, Muckrock.com who do get some of their funding from sources I would not touch with a ten foot pole, but nonetheless do get a lot of good material released. I also follow Intelwire, which is relatively mainstream in its analysis but which is great, absolutely great, for source documents. And I do find John Berger pretty funny, his tongue in cheek attempts at using Google trends to predict future terrorist attacks just makes me snort with laughter.
Because of this I have learned a few things about the Freedom of Information Act, how it works, how it doesn’t, what it can and cannot be used for, what kinds of requests are worth making and what kinds are a waste of time. In Sibel’s case there is basically no hope of getting the FBI to release relevant files, or if they did it would be one of those situations where everything except the FBI logo and the bit at the top where it says what classification the file is are blacked out, and so aside from being able to prove the file exists the documents don’t give you anything.
In fact, I have even seen documents where the classifications themselves have been redacted. The header at the top of the page which usually says something like ‘secret/noforn’, I have had documents released to me and I’ve come across others in archives and the like where even that bit of information is redacted, is still classified. What that means, I don’t know, it just amuses me, these people are so hellishly paranoid.
I will say that of all the offices I’ve dealt with, the FBI’s FOIA office is probably the worst. Or maybe the Metropolitan Police here in the UK. But the FBI’s office is pretty awful. They take ages to respond to requests, if you send them a reminder email after 3 months asking about what’s going on with your request then 9 times out of 10 you get an auto-response. The auto-response tells you to take your unique FOIA Request number and stick it into a box on the FBI’s website where it will give you a status update. Naturally, the status update is generic, it just says ‘being processed’ or something else that tells you nothing.
I’ve also had situations where they have released documents to other people but not released them to me when I asked for the exact same documents. For example, when Tom Clancy died, the author of books that predicted 9/11 and the Bin Laden raid and a man with long-running ties to various government agencies – when he died I asked the FBI for their file on him, as did various other people. A few months later I saw this file appear on MuckRock.com and a couple of other sites, and wrote a strongly worded email to the FBI’s FOIA office asking why they hadn’t fulfilled my request for the same material. I never got an explanation, but they did send me the file on a CD shortly afterwards so I think this was a genuine case of uselessness and incompetence.
However, a similar sort of thing happened when I tried to get their file on Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber who was being protected by the Pakistani ISI and may have been recruited by the CIA. Richard Lebeviere’s book Dollars for Terror mentions Yousef being recruited by the CIA and attributes this to an FBI file, so I thought that for a laugh I’d ask them for the file, along with all the 302s recording their interrogations of Yousef after his arrest in 1995.
I was told I couldn’t have any of it, because it was all sub judice on the grounds it might be part of a forthcoming trial. I can only assume this was either complete bullshit, which is a possibility, or that they were referring to the 9/11 trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. This was a few years ago when in the early years of the Obama administration they talked a lot about actually holding some trials, and then abandoned the idea. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is the uncle of Ramzi Yousef, that’s the connection and possible reason for the files being sealed.
However, when I asked an American research organisation, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, for the Yousef 302s they just got them, in their words ‘from the courthouse’. I assume this refers to the SDNY, the Southern District of New York, where Yousef was prosecuted. Again, I am well aware of the problems with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, the money trail, Steve Emerson, but like I say, information is information and sometimes that means having to deal with people whose views and behaviour you find repugnant. It’s not like I have any interaction with them beyond occasionally asking them to help me source stuff like this.
Another example is when I asked them for George Orwell’s FBI file, which they had previously published on their website back in 2002 or so but had since taken down. They told me they couldn’t find the file and that they had no archive of their own site. They gave me a reference to files held by the National Archives but they turned out to be something else. So, ironically enough, it seems the FBI have washed Orwell’s file down the memory hole. I was able to find it through another means so I have obtained a copy and published it, along with his MI5 and Special Branch files, and some other relevant papers.
So the FBI’s FOIA office is a disgrace, and if you do file requests with them do not expect a speedy response or a satisfying one. Even for comparatively uncontroversial stuff like this – old files on authors and actors and the like – they are still very twitchy. With stuff like Sibel’s case, or people like Ramzi Yousef or Ali Mohamed, I would be surprised if you even got a response, let alone got any documents released, let alone got anything incriminating. So, to be honest, I think that’s a waste of everyone’s time. We can live in hope that some benevolent hacker steals some Embassy cables about Zawahiri’s meetings with US officials or something like that, but even that is a bit of a long shot.
So that’s the bad news about FOIA. If you try to get anything incriminating they won’t give it to you, or will just mess you about for so long that you give up. And half the time even if you ask for stuff they have already released they will still mess you about or play dumb, as though they don’t have records of what they have and haven’t released in the past. This has happened to me quite a lot, and now I don’t file anywhere near as many requests as I used to, I’ve learned to focus on ones with a good chance of success. And that’s the good news – despite all these hassles, FOIA can still be a useful if completely imperfect tool.
My own most recent success is getting over 1600 pages of documents from the US Army and US Air Force’s entertainment liaison offices, i.e. their mass entertainment propaganda units. The files are regular activities reports from 2013 and 2014 for the Air Force and 2010-2015 for the Army and they detail enormous scale DOD support not just for Hollywood films but for a wide variety of popular TV shows, I’m talking about everything from American Idol to Oprah to Cupcake Wars, let alone all of those History Channel and National Geographic shows, including Ancient Aliens.
But I thought I’d tell you a little more about the process that led up to this significant FOIA success. After all, this is the biggest and most up to date release from the Pentagon’s propaganda office so far. This came about because Matt Alford, a lecturer at Bath University, and I were discussing some of the stuff we’d managed to dig up so far and what the best bet for a successful FOIA request was to try to get newer material.
In the course of my trailing around the internet I stumbled across the site governmentattic.org, which was set up by some academics doing a very broad FOIA study back in 2005, 2006. They had managed to get activities reports from the Air Force and Army’s liaison offices from that period – 2004, 2005, 2006. However, by the time I stumbled across them it was 10 years later and, as interesting as those documents are, they didn’t tell us what was going on now.
Nonetheless, they did provide a very good FOIA opportunity, which Matt and I realised. Because once an institution or department or agency releases some documents in a series it sets a legal precedent that they should release others in that same series. Put more simply, when I asked them for the more recent equivalents of these 2004-2006 reports, they couldn’t pretend that the reports didn’t exist. Nor could they refuse to release them on national security grounds or whatever. I mean they could have, but in theory we could have filed a lawsuit and got them released. Not that we would have, we don’t have the time or the money, but just to show you how the FOIA works. So Matt and I agreed this was the best opportunity, the best chance of getting at least some of what we wanted, and we agreed to share the costs if there were any and to share whatever came back.
So I put in requests with those two Entertainment Liaison Offices, and with a couple of others, asking for all equivalent reports since those old ones, up to the date of my request. I even linked them to the governmentattic.org documents so they had no wiggle room, they couldn’t play dumb and pretend they didn’t know what I was talking about. That was back in April, and in truth it was only a matter of weeks, really, before I started getting stuff back.
The Air Force did play some silly games. They only released 2 years worth of reports, they said that the 2015 reports were unavailable because of ongoing computer malfunctions in their Hollywood office. So they can fly a drone by remote control from 10,000 miles away via satellite, but they can’t backup a fucking email? Obviously that’s not true.
Whereas the Army’s documents are digitally searchable, the Air Force ones are medium-quality scans of emails and digital documents that are not searchable. Also, the Air Force did not initially release the 2014 reports to me and when they did they were much more redacted than the 2013 reports or any of the Army’s reports. When they sent me the 2014 ones they included another copy of the 2013 records, but it was about half the size of the one they had previously sent me.
So they did still mess us about a bit but nonetheless, this cost me nothing but time and now we have a great big chunk of new information on a topic hardly anyone knows anything about but which influences huge numbers of people. Matt, bless him, managed to get this into a newspaper here in the UK, a Sunday tabloid but still, the story wasn’t half bad. He’s also been interviewed for a couple of RT pieces about this, one of which is out already and the other is out soon, I think. And he’s mentioning it in a couple of journal articles he’s doing and we – he and I – might be doing another journal piece so this is something that has already got some relatively major attention and will have at least some kind of impact. Whatever problems I have with the media coverage of this – and believe me I have quite a few problems which I detail in the latest edition of ClandesTime – despite those problems and reservations, I think this is something worth doing and I’m glad to be a part of it. Little success like this – and I’m talking about the FOIA success rather than the media side – are what puts a smile on my face because I’m sure, dead sure, the DOD would have preferred it if I hadn’t put in these requests and published these files, and Matt hadn’t managed to get some media to pay attention to them. So even if we’re just a couple of flies in the ointment in terms of the scale of the trouble we’re causing them, at least we are flies in the ointment.
And so that’s my message to you in this episode. Be a fly in the ointment, it’s a good thing to be, and FOIA is one tool for flies like us to harass the purveyors of ointment, an ointment that is really a poison. It’s possible I’m extending this metaphor too far, but I’m reasonably sure you know what I’m saying. And if you are going to be a fly in the ointment, try to be as specific as possible. Pre-empt the excuses these FOIA offices will give you to try to delay or reject your request and write as clear and specific a request, providing references if necessary, as you can. Given them as little chance to wiggle out of it as you can and you never know, you might just get something useful.