Across America, Sunshine Is Under Attack

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Here at MuckRock HQ we’re wrapping up Sunshine Week by requesting reports from mayors’ offices of just about every Occupy movement we can find. While we’ve had a good run of luck with officials at all levels of government lately, we thought we’d take time to highlight ways that officials at all levels of government are trying to dial back transparency.

Here are a few instances – some unfolding just this week – that show your right to access public information is never far from danger.

Strengthening executive privilege

In many states (including our home state of Massachusetts) , governors have exemptions to freedom of information requests that keep records such as emails and other correspondence out of view. But sometimes privilege leads to entitlement. One example is Maine Governor Paul LePage, who after making a campaign promise to increase transparency is working to restrict working papers and other “interoffice and intraoffice memoranda” from public view.

The legislation, which passed from committee to the House and Senate, is opposed by Maine journalists. But, as reported in the Bangor Daily News, a LePage attorney said without the exemption the governor would simply stop writing things down.

Blocking access

While the public has been given some access to court hearings for the accused WikiLeak source Bradley Manning, the most recent motions and orders filed in the case have not been made available to the press.

As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports, journalists have demanded that the Defense Department loosen its grip, noting in a letter signed by 47 organizations that “the interest in openness in this case is not mere curiosity but rather a concern about the very integrity of this nation’s military courts — their ability to oversee the proceedings by which military personnel have their day in court to answer to and defend against allegations of serious offenses.”

The right to lobby in private?

In the waning days of the most recent Virginia General Assembly session, a bill that would shield the names of individuals writing in to legislators passed by with little notice. The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Mark Cole, told the Virginia Statehouse News that his goal is to protect the privacy of those contacting local governments “about child support or disciplinary issues in school.” The reality, however, is that the bill changes the long-held standard that interactions between officials and the public are, in fact, public.

The legislation still requires Gov. Bob McDonnell’s signature.

Bin Laden files missing

While James Madison’s home state isn’t showing his legacy much love, the Obama Administration is continuing to earn criticism for its less than stellar transparency practices, ranging from business-as-usual “not for attribution” discussions with administration officials to stating photos documenting the death of the most wanted man in the world can’t be found.

Photos of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden had been known from the first reports of his death. A request sent in May, however, wasn’t rejected because of expected security considerations. Instead, Department of Defense officials have said the documentation simply can’t be found. The AP reported a similar response to its request this week.

FOIA Friday: ‘May’ contain information

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Apparently, my comment in the last FOIA Friday about April showers was presumptive, because at least here in Massachusetts they show no signs of leaving. Luckily for you, neither does FOIA Friday! Basically everything we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please do send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

Debate rages on over releasing bin Laden images: By now everybody’s heard the news about Bin Laden, be it from the strange emergency press conference, online, or various news outlets. Everybody has also probably been exposed to a number of conspiracy theories surrounding Bin Laden’s death, Pakistan’s involvement, the burial at sea, etc. President Obama, seeking to avoid a gloating feel and also to stem further violence, has made the decision to not release the photos of Bin Laden’s dead body, only spurring on the countless theories about the sketchy nature of the whole operation. A MuckRock user was one of the first to file a FOIA request for the pictures and videos, though it may take a while before anything is heard back.

Ex-Justice Department Official: Obama Could Be Forced to Release the Osama Death Photos: One of the voices heard in the maelstrom surrounding the Osama Bin Laden pictures is that of Daniel Metcalfe, the former chief of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy. Metcalfe argues that the photos (taken, presumably, by Navy SEALS on the covert mission) are ineligible to be protected from FOIA requests because they come from a request-able agency, are not classified, and were not part of covert ops as defined in federal law. It remains to be seen if and how the government will challenge the requests for the now-hidden pictures.

FBI Lies to Federal Court: In a court case between the ACLU and FBI concerning a request the ACLU had filed in 2006, the court ruled that the FBI had the right to withhold information but that at the same time the judge criticized the FBI for lying to the court. The original request was filed on behalf of Muslim groups in California in response to rumors that the FBI was attempting to infiltrate mosques in Southern California. While it was upheld that the FBI could deny the request for information about the infiltrations, the judge blaster the FBI and DoJ for saying that no results were found that matched the ACLU’s request when, in fact, 120 results were located.

FBI using surveillance software to track suspects online: From Activist Post via Raw Story comes the information that the FBI, utilizing a software known as Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV), is able to see huge amounts of information from the computer the software is present on, including the URLs visited by the user. While it’s unclear how the software gets on a computer, it is suspected that it exploits holes in computer security like a regular piece of spyware. This chilling information was turned up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a 2007 FOIA request after rumors hinted at government spyware usage.