Freedom of Information Act: An Enemy Worse Than Osama Bin Laden

Sometimes, a girl just needs to vent, to continually beat the proverbial dead horse-to prove that she’s right even though everyone might already agree with her. Such is the case today.

Sarah Vouga – Waterford Technologies

Like any American, on May 2nd, 2011, around 9:45pm, I was glued, (mid-squat and 6 months pregnant) to the television, unable to get past President Obama’s words; “the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama Bin Laden…” There was no immediate celebration between my husband and I; we were worried-in disbelief. As both of us had served (and as my husband was at that point still serving) in the United States Marine Corps, we knew that the information that President Obama was saying that night was limited, re-crafted, and not even close to the real story of what unfolded in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The next day, graphic pictures flooded my Facebook news feed of a bloodied and beaten face of Osama Bin Laden. My friends and family were excited. The man responsible for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks could no longer harm us, threaten our country, or take away those we love. But this picture was not real. It was a remarkable product of expert photo shopping. Many like myself, wanted validation that this was real; wanted literal and tangible proof that Bin Laden was dead, no matter how horribly awful and graphic that proof was. Proof in the form of a picture never came. But a non-profit news agency was already ahead of the rest of the United States in attempting to get that picture. And that story is more troublesome than the details surrounding the raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound.

On May 3rd, 2011, The Associated Press asked Special Operations Command’s Freedom of Information/Privacy Act division Freedom of information actoffice for “copies of all emails sent from and to the U.S. government account or accounts” of Adm. William McRaven, who heads the U.S. Special Operations Command, referencing Bin Laden. The command’s FOIA office responded to The Associated Press on May 4, 2011, acknowledging the Bin Laden request and said it had been assigned for processing. By February 29, 2012, The Department of Defense FOIA office told The Associated Press that it could find no emails to or from McRaven “responsive to your request” for communications about Osama Bin Laden.

In an email dated May 13th, 2011, a whopping 10 days after the initial FOIA request was made by The Associated Press, the then Vice Adm. McRaven wrote the following: “One particular item I want to emphasize is photos; particularly UBLs remains. At this point–all photos should have been turned over to the CIA; if you still have them destroy them immediately or get them to the [redacted.]” The email was almost entirely redacted and released under a Freedom of Information Act request made by the conservative activist group, Judicial Watch.

“Despite there being multiple requests for this information, and a lawsuit for this information, there was a directive that was sent out, to who knows who, to destroy records, it may have been in violation of the law.” said Tom Fitton, the president for Judicial Watch.

Though this is an extreme example, it’s a good one of the blatant disregard for the FOIA or open records process that is in place. If the government- for privacy or PR reasons- needs to keep this information under wraps, then this should be explained to the American public. If the government or private enterprises destroy records then there should be ramifications. Imagine if a private enterprise destroyed records, wouldn’t there be fines and legal recourse?!

One advantage of having an automated email archiving system is that 1) all information is automatically captured and 2) it can quickly be produced.

The bigger question is: If the government has such a system, are they choosing not to use this type technology based on a policy? This goes back to a previous blog on People, Policies, and Technology. You can have the best technology and processes but people can still overwrite it.

See how an email archiving solution can assist your organization with Freedom Of Information Act requests requests