At the top of its June newsletter, the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General (DoD OIG) has publicly stated its intent to begin proactively releasing reports and other select investigations to the public, rather than requiring Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for them.
As many of you know, FOIA is meant to provide citizens with information on government activity that is not readily available to the public. In order to facilitate the availability of government records, FOIA requires federal agencies to publish certain documents in their online FOIA Reading Rooms, as well as respond to individual requests for information. FOIA also requires the proactive disclosure of various documents to the public, a provision described by the Department of Justice as “an integral part of [FOIA].”
In the past, the DoD OIG documents now slated for proactive release had to be FOIA’d in order to see the light of day. The Project On Government Oversight has written extensively about how this process tends to lend itself to excessive government secrecy within the DoD, especially frustrating when documents are categorized as unclassified.
For example, a report on the Mi-17 helicopter program overhaul POGO had requested three years ago only just arrived this week. The designation that the DoD OIG used to justify withholding the document, “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), is meant to be applied only to information that could cause “foreseeable harm to an interest protected by one or more of [the] FOIA Exemptions.” A separate POGO FOIA request for a DoD OIG audit report regarding a poorly managed project with the Afghan Air Force was fulfilled 15 months after the initial request. This document was also labeled FOUO and heavily redacted.
In these and other cases, it appears that the DoD OIG was using the FOUO designation to bury reports that could embarrass the Department, rather than to protect truly sensitive information. POGO was able to obtain copies of the reports through other means and determine that the redacted information—mostly generalized cost data—does not constitute information protected from release by the FOIA exemptions– as the DoD OIG claimed.
The DoD OIG pledge to proactively release some documents is a welcome step toward greater transparency. While the reports and selected administrative investigations will still undergo the redaction process, a formal FOIA request will no longer be required to gain access. These documents will be made available on the OIG websiteand included in the monthly newsletter. POGO applauds this decision as a powerful means of increasing the government’s accountability to the public, and cautiously hopes that this is a sign of a change for the better at the DoD OIG.