Press: Workshopping with FOIA Experts Exposes the Secrets for Compelling Governments to Expose Theirs

Posted on March 3, 2018

Braving the third straight day of the weekend’s blizzard, attendees flocked to the completely booked training workshop hosted by the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.

Community members of different backgrounds and experience levels from across the city came together on Sunday, February 11, to learn how to take an active part in holding their government accountable—obtaining records of government activity right from the source by filing Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests. As the workshop was presented by veritable FOIA gurus, including researchers from Lucy Parsons Labs and independent activists, participants could not have asked for better guides.

Although many attendees generally appreciated the impact FOIA requests had on reporting in the public interest, they still felt unfamiliar with the ins and outs of successfully filing a FOIA request. Some didn’t even know where to start. But the dozen-and-a-half community members gathered cozily around the CCDBR office conference table were in for more than a lecture, enjoying a truly hands-on training, with experts coaching them every step of the way from a fresh email draft to a submitted request.

One participant, Jake Ader, attending as a volunteer and a trainee, found this approach particularly engaging.

“I am a firm believer that there is always something more to be learned, and in everyone being able to take something away for themselves, in a collaborative environment,” Ader said, “so I had high hopes to take something away with me for future requests.”

Flanked by walls plastered with a dazzling collage of protest signs and fliers, reminders of the nearly endless avenues of inquiry into government conduct, Freddy Martinez, a founder of LPL and one of the presenters, walked the attendees through the fundamental components of taking on government agencies on their turf. More than just cataloging the compulsory bureaucratic jargon to include, Martinez and his fellow presenters explained in detail, how and why government bodies decline FOIA requests, and how those filing them can challenge their results.

Taking thorough stock of governments’ means of defeating aspiring truth-seekers is not only key to ensuring a fulfilled request but, as many attendees acknowledged, an underappreciated aspect of the FOIA game. In fact, in spite of his long tenure and familiarity with the FOIA process, even CCDBR President Bob Clarke, was surprised at the array of tactics government uses to deflect requests.

“I learned much more than I expected, or could completely absorb,” said Clarke. “The information on exceptions and differences between state, local and federal procedures was not what I anticipated.”

As Clarke and the assembled community members discovered, government FOIA review personnel have a sizable arsenal of exemptions by which to deny requests, and while many carve-outs undoubtedly have legitimate grounds, FOIA veterans can attest that they are often employed liberally to provide cover for secretive behavior. Among these defenses are claims of sensitive law enforcement information, classification as trade secrets under contracts, to simply “unduly burdensome”–to name only a few. For every such overuse of pretexts, the presenters offered circumventing maneuvers.

Following their brief, but thorough instructional presentation, the organizers split the room into small groups, asked members what records they were interested in looking into and set them on the path toward seeking them out. Clarke was lucky enough to receive guidance directly from Martinez on probing into FBI documentation on CCDBR itself, as the history of the organization is inextricably bound up with the Red Scare of the Cold War, including the notorious abuses of the Chicago Police Department “Red Squad,” which worked in tandem with the FBI.

“With help from Freddy and others with LPL, we submitted a sweeping FOIA request relating to the FBI’s surveillance of, and other connections with, CCDBR going back to 1960,” Clarke said.

As expected, it turns out that there are non-intuitive hoops to jump through to compel the FBI to scour its backlog of dossiers, but chasing the Feds proved to be merely one of many methods for learning the ropes. Matt Chapman, another of the session’s presenters and an independent researcher working in the public interest, steered his group through a broader request into Chicago Police Department data. That perennial target for FOIA queries delivered ample teaching moments, as Chapman reflected.

“A lot of the time was spent brainstorming ideas and talking about what to expect with some of the specifics of submitting requests.” Chapman said. “One member of the group was interested in doing a request on Chicago gang [policing], which gave us a great chance to talk about when it’s useful to narrow or widen the scope of a request.”

Give and take. There’s no one cookie-cutter wording for FOIA filings that works every time, but by talking it out, the groups started to develop a sense of how to mold the request to fit the agency, the information, and the public good. Each of the submissions crafted and shared that day shed some light on how to handle the agency rejections of FOIA inquiries one is bound to encounter, as Ader found out.

“[Some] details that were surprising to me were the examples of the effectiveness of appeals to requests returned with ‘no responsive documents.’” Ader said. “Some of the testimonies of this from people who have been filing for many years were encouraging.”

Clearly, Ader was not the only one undaunted by the often trying and drawn-out process of goading government bureaucrats into disclosing document – there was a palpable energy in the room as many newcomers to FOIA eagerly set off on their way, and FOIA stalwarts reinvigorated the journey on theirs. Neither did Ader hesitate to recommend undertaking FOIA submission (nor, I suspect, would anyone else that day).

“Find what you’re interested in, do some research… and most importantly just do it!” Ader said. “This is your chance to get info on the bureaucratic meat-grinder out into the public. It’s relatively easy, free, and puts documents out there for others to reference.”

Jonathan Terrasi has been a Research Assistant with the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights since January 2017. His interests include computer security, encryption, history, and philosophy. In his writing, he regularly covers topics on current affairs and political developments, as well as technical analyses and guides on security issues, published on his blog, Cymatic Scanning, and Linux Insider.