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A Blatant Example of Pointless Government Secrecy

 
Photograph of An Afghan air force C-27A Spartan aircraft arrives at Kabul International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 20, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Smith/Released)
An Afghan air force C-27A Spartan aircraft arrives at Kabul International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 20, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Smith/Released)

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Last week, the Project On Government Oversight blogged about the United States’ effort to supply the Afghan Air Force with the G222/C-27A Spartan transport aircraft, a poorly conceived and managed program that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and was shut down in 2012.

The blog cited a January 2013 Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) audit report, which detailed the poor planning, mismanagement, and waste that doomed the program. The report is labeled “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), a marking applied to unclassified information for which the public must submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. POGO submitted a FOIA request for the report back in March 2013. Fifteen months later, DoD IG finally sent us a copy—with redactions.

POGO also obtained an unredacted, albeit incomplete, copy of the report. Comparing the two versions, it’s obvious that the redactions—based on FOIA Exemption 4, which covers trade secrets and sensitive commercial or financial information—are wholly unjustified. The data redacted in this report are generalized cost figures, such as the $60.5 million spare parts total DoD IG forgot to redact in the “Results in Brief” section. The public release of these figures will not give Alenia North America’s competitors an unfair commercial advantage.

POGO has vented our frustration before about DoD IG’s overuse of the FOUO marking. We worry this practice is keeping the public in the dark about the office’s investigations, some of which have won awards for excellence. I searched DoD IG’s publications website and found that 312 of the 4,485 documents are marked FOUO and must be requested through FOIA. What’s worse, for many of these restricted reports, the website doesn’t even provide a summary of key findings. POGO is currently waiting on FOIA requests for two reports, one of which we submitted almost a year ago.

DoD policy is clear: the FOUO marking should only be used to prevent “a foreseeable harm to an interest protected by one or more of [the] FOIA Exemptions” (see page 11), not to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency” (see page 9). The material contained in the G222 audit report doesn’t in any way implicate a “foreseeable harm” to Alenia or to the government. Instead, we can only assume, once again, that DoD IG is attempting to shield the Pentagon and a major defense contractor from embarrassment—in this case, from the failings of the ill-fated G222/C-27A Spartan program.

As evidenced by this November 2010 executive order, President Obama is trying to prune the thicket of control markings that federal agencies use to designate controlled unclassified information (CUI) such as FOUO. By 2010, there were more than 100 different CUI markings. However, it is anticipated that a standardized and simplified government-wide CUI program will not be fully implemented for several years (see page 3). Time is of the essence because the confusing patchwork of CUI policies isn’t just wrongly restricting public access to documents and data—according to the executive order, it is also failing to safeguard legitimately sensitive information and hampering information sharing within the government.

By: Neil Gordon
Investigator, POGO

Neil Gordon, Investigator Neil Gordon is an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight. Neil investigates and maintains POGO's Federal Contractor Misconduct Database.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Government Secrecy, Inspector General Oversight, Information Access, Overclassification, Defense

Authors: Neil Gordon

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