Jun 09, 2019 I Micah Hanks

Secrets, Security, and Strangeness: FOIAs Offer a Glimpse at “The Other Side” of Government

On September 16, 1994, a memorandum was issued to high-ranking members of President Bill Clinton's administration, outlining a unique directive aimed at reshaping the security policy structure in the United States.

"The end of the Cold War has dramatically changed the threats that defined the security policies and procedures for protecting our government's information, facilities and people," Clinton wrote in the memo. "While some threats have been reduced, others have remained relatively stable or have increased. Our understanding of the range of issues that affect our national security continues to evolve."

"With this greater diversity of threats," he continued, "there is wide recognition that the security policies, practices and procedures developed during the Cold War must be reexamined and changed. We require a new security process based on sound threat analysis and risk management practices. A process which can adapt our security policies, practices and procedures as the economic, political and military challenges to our national interests continue to evolve."

After outlining key areas that would become the aim of future security assessments, Clinton moved that, "Consistent with the National Security Act of 1947, I direct the establishment of a new security policy structure, under the direction of the NSC, for the coordination, formulation, evaluation and oversight of security policy," and the ultimate formation of a secretive Security Policy Board.

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Bill Clinton during a visit to Los Alamos National Laboratories (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

This is all significant primarily for one reason: public knowledge of the Security Policy Board came to light as a result of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Release of the first page of Presidential Decision Directive 29, which detailed the formation of this secret policy group in the Clinton government. Otherwise, its existence might remain off-the-books even today.

The Freedom of Information Act is integral to the journalistic process today, and in keeping with the objective of broader government transparency, it is also a vital tool for the citizenry. There are a variety of things that come to light as a result of FOIA, ranging from secretive details like those outlined above, to the truly odd. For instance, a recent series of documents posted on the FBI's website detail how the Bureau studied alleged Bigfoot hair in the 1970s. However, these documents had actually been released in 2018 to researcher John Greenwald, as part of a FOIA request he made after a discussion with David Paulides about the subject, whereafter they were added to FBI's Vault for broader public access (this is often the case with FOIA releases which, upon being made public, will be added to the "Reading Rooms" on websites of the agencies granting the FOIA, if the newly released files are believed to be of broader public interest).

FOIA has also played an integral role in piecing together what little we can about the Pentagon's secretive Advanced Aerospace Weapons Systems Application Program, or AATIP, which studied unexplained aerial phenomena between 2007 and 2012. The program was first made public in December 2017, following a New York Times article which interviewed Luis Elizondo, who says he was head of the program until his resignation only weeks earlier (subsequent acknowledgment of the program by Pentagon spokespeople has also occurred).

However, as far as government documentation to accompany public statements about the program, arguably the most significant was a FOIA release obtained by Steven Aftergood with the Federation of American Scientists, which presented a series of research papers related to the program and its objectives.

"The DIA list of research papers, marked for Official Use Only, was previously provided to Congress in January 2018. It was publicly released yesterday under the Freedom of Information Act," Aftergood wrote.

"A DIA FOIA officer noted with some exasperation," he added, "that yesterday’s release of the list of research papers will, in all likelihood, prompt new FOIA requests to his Agency for each of the listed papers."

According to the Electronic Information Privacy Center (EPIC), a Washington-based organization that promotes "public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values in the information age," a number of less unusual, albeit more concerning issues have come to light as a result of FOIA requests over the years. In 2014, EPIC filed a FOIA request for documents pertaining to the deployment of Z Backscatter Van technology, a variety of X-ray technology used to scan objects, which had been in use by law enforcement agencies since 2011. The documents were released to them earlier this year.

Other notable FOIA releases pertaining to government secrecy and experimental technologies include:

  • Details about FBI contracts with Dataminr, a company which created an Advanced Alerting Tool allowing the FBI to engage in broad, near-real-time surveillance of Twitter.
  • Documents outlining a procedure for disrupting cellular communications networks.
  • Documents on the FBI's Carnivore Internet Surveillance System (which can be read here).

In the age of cyberterrorism, many would argue that such technologies are necessary in order to preserve a free society. The irony, of course, is that "freedom" in the digital age is often reliant on certain measures that, in order to protect us, must also overstep our natural freedoms and right to privacy. Therefore, with tools like FOIA at our disposal, it is incumbent on us as the citizenry to pursue transparency where it can be attained, in the promotion of the ideals of a free, open, and democratic society.

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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