In 1989, The National Security Archive requested documents from the CIA regarding the Iran-Contra affair. This year, the CIA released them. President Barack Obama promised a new era of transparency and adherence to the Freedom of Information Act, but has he followed through? Yvette Chin, FOIA coordinator for the NSA, tells the story behind the long, long wait for information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama wrote a memo to department heads instructing them to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests promptly and in a spirit of cooperation. Disclosure, Obama wrote, should be timely. And soon after, the CIA finally released material that had been requested by the non-governmental, nonprofit National Security Archive [LAUGHS] 20 years ago. The National Security Archive, which files up to 2,000 record requests a year, reported this month that the delayed release shows exactly what’s wrong with FOIA. Yvette Chin, the archive’s FOIA coordinator, says the documents themselves are mostly old news, in part because Congress had investigated Iran-Contra long ago. Those records focus on Manucher Ghorbanifar, an important figure in the Reagan era Iran-Contra Affair.
YVETTE CHIN: He’s an Iranian-born businessman who was ultimately integral in transferring arms during the Iran-Contra Affair. He also later provided intelligence. The National Security Archive, my organization, has been filing FOIAs for the last 25 years, and it actually got its start looking for documents about the Iran-Contra Affair. So this is very much an old one for us.
BOB GARFIELD: So let me see if I've got this right. The National Security Archive, someone there opens the mail one day and here is the response to a FOIA Request sent 20 years ago? Is that what happened?
YVETTE CHIN: Absolutely, and I wish I could say that that was unusual, but it happens all the time.
BOB GARFIELD: Were you able to figure out what happened in the intervening two decades?
YVETTE CHIN: We received three pieces of correspondence from the CIA. One of them was soon after we had filed the request, to actually acknowledge the receipt of that request. But then we received two letters, one in 1992 and one in 2003, and in both cases the CIA did not seem terribly interested in the processing of the request, but rather looking for clarification about how they should levy fees on us in order to process the request.
BOB GARFIELD: Do I understand correctly that the CIA has released a document to you with more material blacked out than was blacked out in the same document that has been a matter of public record since 1987?
YVETTE CHIN: That’s correct. When we received a new version, there were more redactions to it. This is kind of an ongoing problem. The United States government often reclassifies material that is already available in the public domain. In a lot of ways it’s a lot like putting toothpaste back into the tube.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there anything in the ultimate response from the CIA that was particularly revealing about Ghorbanifar’s role or anything else that happened in those days?
YVETTE CHIN: Some of it had already been in the public domain for a fair amount of time. Some of the material was actually released as a result of Congress’ investigation into the affair. But really, there weren't any smoking guns in this particular release. But, on the other hand, there’s also an unknown quantity of material that the CIA continues to withhold.
BOB GARFIELD: So maybe there’s all sorts of revealing, incriminating detail in there that you may never see.
YVETTE CHIN: Exactly, and that’s a real problem because we don't even know how much is being withheld in this case.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't the law fairly explicit about timeliness, that the agency is expected to respond quickly and, if it is unable to fulfill the request, to explain why?
YVETTE CHIN: At the moment an agency is supposed to respond to a request within 20 days, not just acknowledge the receipt of the request but actually fulfill the request. Now, in some ways those expectations might be a little high. However, waiting 20 years is very [LAUGHS] different from waiting 20 days.
BOB GARFIELD: There was nothing in the letter that said, oh sorry, this slipped between the cracks?
YVETTE CHIN: There was one line that basically thanked us for our patience for, I believe the letter says, an extraordinary length of time.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Is it possible to work the refs, in other words, to complain about this call so that you'll get a break on the next one?
YVETTE CHIN: Well, we certainly wouldn't want to use this example to get favor, but I think it’s really important to shed light on the fact that there’s a systemic problem with FOIA processing, and this is just one example.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you guys are constantly filing such requests. I wonder if you've noticed any change in the Obama administration compared to its immediate predecessor.
YVETTE CHIN: We certainly see changes on the horizon that we view positively, but in terms of the day-to-day processing and the day-to-day operations, I don't see too much change. In my position at the National Security Archive as FOIA coordinator, I can look for patterns in how agencies behave. I'm seeing a little bit more in terms of customer service, checking in on requests but, generally speaking, in terms of massive releases of information I’m not quite seeing that yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Yvette, thank you so much.
YVETTE CHIN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Yvette Chin is the FOIA coordinator for the nonprofit National Security Archive.
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