A US Navy official mistakenly forwarded an email to a local news reporter this week outlining the Navy’s method of avoiding the very Freedom of Information Act requests that reporter had filed.
Scott MacFarlane, a news reporter for NBC 4 in Washington, DC, had filed a FOIA request with the Navy in an attempt to compel authorities to turn over documents related to the Navy Yard shooting in September. MacFarlane was seeking memos written by higher-ups at Naval Sea Systems Command from September, October, and November 2013--messages sent by the same officials in the hours directly after the shooting occurred, and images of building 197 at the Navy Yard, where the gunman killed 12 people and injured three others.
The Navy’s FOIA office confirmed that it had received MacFarlane’s request, but instead of sending him the relevant documents, they inadvertently sent an internal email containing instructions on how to avoid the reporter’s request. MacFarlane tweeted a screenshot of the message – which included the name of Robin Patterson, the Navy’s FOIA public liaison – accompanied by the phrase “EPIC FAILURE.”
“I think the appropriate response is ‘cameras are prohibited from the premises, with the exception of ‘official photos’ of specific events and assemblies, or ceremonies, such as retirements,” the email read, in part. “This request is too broad to tie to the specific event. If you discover that there is a ‘photo library,’ I would recommend negotiating with the requester…”
MacFarlane also asked the Navy to waive fees beyond $15 because his request “is in the public interest….A compelling need exists to warrant expedited processing of this request, because a large number of our viewers are immediately impacted by the content of these records. There records relate directly to performance of government in matters of safety, health, and well-being.”
FOIA workers advised each other to avoid turning over information by telling MacFarlane his request was too broad and would constitute a “fishing expedition,” and that he should “narrow the scope of his request.”
“Again, another ‘fishing expedition,’” the screenshot shows. “[J]ust because they are media doesn’t mean the memos shed light on specific government activities.”
Officials also singled out one of MacFarlane’s requests in particular, noting “this one is specific enough that we may be able to deny it. However, I want to talk with the FBI as they may have ‘all the emails during that time, in their possession.’”
The Navy has consistently denied media personnel access to Building 197 since the September shooting and has relocated workers to an office nearby while repairs are completed there.
Just hours after MacFarlane’s tweets went viral, the Navy’s Twitter feed published a series of messages addressing the military’s respect for the FOIA process.
#USNavy supports the Freedom of Information Act & its vital role in providing transparency to the American public— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) January 7, 2014