Secrets in Seattle: A Report on the National FOI Conference

ICOG board member Tony Fargo reports back on the hot topics under discussion by more than 100 public access advocates at the recent National Freedom of Information Coalition convention.

 

More than 100 public access advocates from across the nation gathered in Seattle May 11 and 12 for the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) convention.

Sessions during the convention dealt with advice for coalitions as well as for reporters and other advocates of open access to government records and meetings. Panelists at the sessions shared ideas on how to build access coalitions; whether coalitions should hire executive directors; how to keep access a bipartisan issue in both “blue” and “red” states; and how coalitions could train public officials on open government laws. Other sessions dealt with prying information out of public officials about sports stadium deals; the growing problem of election transparency; hot stories from the FOI beat; the reclassification of government records; and where to find thousands of documents online.

Highlights of the conference included the session on FOI beat stories. Panelist Rebecca Carr of the Cox Newspapers Washington bureau cited statistics showing that secrecy has become a story in and of itself. She said that the federal government spent $134 creating secrets for every $1 spent releasing formerly secret documents. She also noted that the number of documents classified in 2004 rose to more than 14 million, compared to about 3.5 million in 1995.

Mike McGraw, a special projects reporter for The Kansas City Star, urged the audience to use the Freedom of Information Act or risk losing it. He advised reporters to keep up with the FOIA process when a request is pending and to stay in contact with the agency. He also noted that records could sometimes be obtained for reporters by other people interested in the same information, such as officials in other agencies or advocates on various issues.

The reclassification discussion involved more startling numbers. Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, noted that the number of documents being classified now outpaced the Cold War years. Blanton added that Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Thomas Kean, a co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, had both said they believed that 50 percent to 75 percent of classified documents did not need to be hidden from access.

Blanton said the biggest problems with reclassifying previously available documents came from the Department of Energy and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He said that “worst-case thinking” had taken over in Washington and little cost/benefit analysis was going on in regard to secrecy. Gary Stern and J. William Bonanno of the National Archives noted that they live with the problem of shifting data policies every day. Bonanno said about three million people in government are authorized to classify documents, but there is little quality control and few clear policies about classification and reclassification.

Blanton suggested a few changes to the classification system might help, including:
• Putting a specific person in charge of classification in each agency.
• Putting sunset provisions on classified material.
• “Taxing” agencies that classify records to offset costs (estimated at $7 billion a year) and discourage classification.

Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), led a fast-paced discussion of little-known websites that provide access to information that is often otherwise hidden. A full list of sites can be found on the IRE website (www.ire.org), but here are a few Houston mentioned:
• Archive.org, which caches old web pages.
• Zabasearch.com, a people searcher.
• Searchsystems.net, which indexes state, federal, and international public records.
• Fedworld.gov, which provides access to federal government records.
• Whois.net, which directs people to the owners of Internet domain names.

The keynote speaker for the Saturday luncheon was James Neff, head of investigative projects for The Seattle Times, who discussed his newspaper’s award-winning project “Your Courts, Their Secrets.” The series uncovered thousands of sealed court decisions throughout Washington state and led to changes in the way that courts decide to seal case files and decisions.

The “Heroes of the 50 States” Award went to Forrest M. “Frosty” Landon, who is retiring this year as executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

Another treat for convention participants was a movie night. Writer, producer, and director John Scheinfeld talked with the audience before a screening of his documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which he researched using FOIA to get documents about the FBI’s secret campaign against the Beatles singer.

Scheinfeld is working on another movie based on FOIA records, this one involving the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

You can watch streaming videos from sessions at the NFOIC conference here.