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The complexities of the information highway: The web of information power is sticky

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is the list of regulations that allow people to request public documents from the federal government.

The news media has historically had a special relationship with the government and its public records because the media, “gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience” according to the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.

Because of the nature of a journalist’s job – which is to make sense of the events of the world and report those events to the public – FOIA provides journalists access to public documents with less hassle and expense than the general public.

FOIA though, also allows government officials to decide how much access journalists have to the information being requested, and the restrictions usually fall under the “threat to national security” heading.

Even in a request by journalists to receive information from the U.S. Attorney General pertaining to some changes in FOIA regulations, particularly those that relate to the government’s ability to request information from the media’s journalism stories or investigations, not all of the information is considered safe to release to the public.

In an August 2018 response to a request made in October 2017 by Carrie DeCell of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the U.S. Department of Justice released information pertaining to “records concerning restrictions imposed by statute, regulation, or surveillance targeting members of the news media or otherwise implicating the freedoms of speech, association, or the press.”

According to the author of the request, Trevor Timm, Senior Reviewing Attorney on behalf of the offices of the Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General, and Associate Attorney General, fourteen pages of the requested information were appropriate for release, and the other pages were not based on the various regulations that permit the government to withhold certain information.

These regulations refer to “information that is properly classified in the interest of national security pursuant Executive Order 13526;” and “information exempted from release by the statue, in this instance 50 U.S.C. § 3024(i)(1) (National Security Act of 1947);” and “to certain inter- and intra- agency communications protected by deliberative process and attorney client privileges;” and “information compiled for law enforcement purposes, the release of which would disclose certain techniques or procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”

In addition, the letter indicated that some information located originated in a different office, the Office of Professional Responsibility, and that information needed to be reviewed by that office prior to release.

The FOIA web of regulations is complex and time consuming. Response to requests are often slow and cumbersome, and requests often go both ways, each side of the information pipeline protective of its information and sources for justifiable reasons.

In the next series of articles, we will explore the complexity of this web of information and how it impacts the government, the media and ultimately the public.

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