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FOIA in the News - 2002-2003

More FOIA News Stories - 2001 | 2003-2004 | 2004-2006

20 NOTEWORTHY ARTICLES MADE POSSIBLE BY FOIA IN 2002-2003

  • State and federal Freedom of Information acts were mentioned in over 6000 news stories in the last 12 months and over 1000 headlines, based on the Archive's review of online databases such as Lexis-Nexis and Factiva/Dow Jones Interactive.
  • The total number of Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act access requests received by all federal departments and agencies during fiscal year 2001, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, was 2,246,212.
  • In fiscal year 2001, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, the total cost of all FOIA-related activities for all federal departments and agencies, as reported in their annual FOIA reports, was $287,792,041.08, just over $1 per citizen, based on U.S. Census Bureau population estimates for 2003.

[NOTE: The following lists are based on searches of Lexis-Nexis and Factiva online databases.]

1. "Eating well: Second Thoughts on Mercury in Fish"
By Marian Burros, The New York Times, 13 March 2002, p. F5

FOIA documents from the Food and Drug Administration revealed intense pressure from the commercial tuna industry when the FDA recommended that pregnant women avoid shark, swordfish, tilefish and mackerel because of high levels of mercury contamination that could cause brain defects or delays in mental development in their children. After three meetings with tuna industry representatives, the FDA said nothing in its fish guidance about one of the most significant sources of mercury in the American diet, tuna, the best-selling fish in the U.S. accounting for more than a third of seafood sales. The documents were obtained by the NGO, Environmental Working Group; now FDA is revising its guidance to include tuna.

2. "Veep Tried to Aid Firm: Key role in India debt row"
By Timothy J. Burger, (New York) Daily News, 18 January 2002, p. 10

FOIA documents from the Energy Department showed Vice President Dick Cheney tried to help the Texas-based energy giant Enron collect a $64 million debt from the Dabhol energy project in India, by raising the subject with the leader of the Indian opposition party during a Washington D.C. meeting. The White House had maintained that the now-bankrupt Enron, involved in multiple fraud investigations, enjoyed no special favors from the President or Vice-President. Enron's founder had contributed more than $600,000 to President Bush's political campaigns over the years; and the top White House economic adviser had been on the Enron payroll as a $50,000 a year consultant. The documents noted that "President Bush cannot talk about Dabhol" and that the economic adviser "was advised that he could not discuss Dabhol." But top White House staff described Cheney's intervention as "good news" in internal e-mail released through FOIA.

3. "Reagan, Hoover, and the UC Red Scare"
By Seth Rosenfeld, San Francisco Chronicle, 9 June 2002, p. A1
"Feinstein demands answers from FBI: Report on UC activities generates 'deep concern'"
By Seth Rosenfeld, San Francisco Chronicle, 23 June 2002, p. A1

FOIA documents obtained after a 17-year legal battle showed the FBI had conducted unlawful intelligence activities at the University of California, the nation's largest public university, in the 1950s and 1960s, including covert support for movie star Ronald Reagan's first successful campaign for state governor pledging to suppress student protests. The FBI also secretly campaigned to get UC President Clark Kerr fired, conspired with the director of the CIA to pressure the university's Board of Regents to "eliminate" liberal professors, and mounted a covert operation to manipulate public opinion and infiltrate agents provocateurs into non-violent student dissent groups. California's senior U.S. Senator followed up the story with Congressional queries about the current state of FBI political surveillance activities.

4. "Sailors exposed to deadly agents"
By Lee Davidson, The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 24 May 2002, p. A1

Seven years after The Deseret News published FOIA documents showing Utah-based U.S. Army scientists had exposed hundreds of sailors to germ and chemical warfare tests in the 1960s, the Pentagon finally and officially acknowledged using actual chemical and biological warfare agents in the tests, including the nerve agents VX and sarin and deadly staphylococcal enterotoxin. The admission will allow the hundreds of affected veterans to receive disability and health benefits previously denied them.

5. "Suit targets mercury-laced vaccinations"
By Margaret Cronin Fisk, The Recorder (American Lawyer Media), 26 March 2002, p. 1

FOIA documents obtained from the Centers for Disease Control by a group of parents of autistic children showed that the amount of mercury contained in a standard preservative (thimerosol) for vaccines given in the first three months of life would dramatically increase the risk of autism in children who received those vaccinations. Dozens of lawsuits are now being filed across the U.S. against vaccine and thimerosol makers.

6. "I-PASS has a new role: I-Spy"
By Robert C. Herguth, Chicago Sun-Times, 7 October 2002, p. 8

Illinois' electronic highway toll paying system has turned over information on drivers' dates, times, locations, and amounts of toll transactions in response to at least 10 subpoenas in crime probes, administrative proceedings and even a divorce, according to documents obtained through the Illinois state FOIA. Drivers deposit money in a highway department account and get a transponder for their windshields that allows for automatic deduction of tolls without even stopping at tollbooths, thus reducing congestion. But now criminal investigators and even divorce lawyers have discovered the database and more subpoenas are expected.

7. "NIH to Give Hormone Maker Data; Researchers Are Worried Wyeth Will Manipulate Findings"
By Susan Okie, The Washington Post, 19 October 2002, p. A10

Under the FOIA, the drug company (Wyeth Pharmaceuticals) that makes the most widely used hormone products obtained from the National Institutes of Health the still-unpublished data from a massive government study of hormone therapy. The researchers had halted part of the study in July 2002, announcing that for healthy post-menopausal women, combination therapy with the hormones estrogen and progestin did more harm than good, with small but statistically significant increases in heart disease, breast cancer, stroke and blood clots. In September, Wyeth released new labeling reflecting the new findings, and says it requested the data for evaluation purposes. Wyeth had supplied the researchers with $20 million worth of the drugs for testing.

8. "History recorded from the messages of victims"
By Alain Delaqueriere and Tom Torok, The New York Times, 26 May 2002, p. 25

The New York state and city FOIAs allowed reporters to obtain the emergency dispatch logs, transcripts of 911 calls, and audio tapes made by the New York Police and Fire Departments on September 11, 2001, and then to find more than 140 people who communicated with individuals on the upper floors of the twin towers of the World Trade Center before they collapsed. New York Times reporters documented 406 instances in which people on the top floors communicated with the world outside after the first plane struck, including cell phone, fax and e-mail messages. One victim's widow called the scrutiny invaluable: "There are so many issues that need to be looked at to understand what went wrong, what happened and what could be done differently."

9. "Embassy documents say Hastert belittled rights concerns in Colombia"
By Ken Guggenheim, Associated Press, 4 May 2002.

State Department documents obtained through the FOIA show that current Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, told Colombian military officers during a May 1997 visit to Colombia that he was 'sick and tired' of human rights considerations controlling U.S. anti-drug aid, and that the military should bypass the Clinton White House and come directly to Congress for aid. The documents, obtained by the National Security Archive, also show that a key U.S.-trained counternarcotics unit was "bedding down" with a Colombian brigade linked to right-wing paramilitaries and major human rights abuses.

10. "Some fear stronger FBI will return to old abuses"
By Tom Brazaitis, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7 July 2002.

The FBI's COINTELPRO (COunterINTELligencePROgram), which targeted civil-rights and anti-war activists in the 1960s and early 1970s and caused thousands of civil-rights abuses, is again the focus of discussion as Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that he was loosening restrictions on the FBI's ability to conduct domestic surveillance. Stories of the FBI's COINTELPRO are disturbing. For three years, the FBI kept a file on Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and tried to stop him from granting $20,000 to a "black extremist" group, the Afro Set, which ran community outreach and anti-drug programs. The leader of the Afro Set, Harlell Jones was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder in 1972, but the conviction was reversed and Jones was released in 1978, partly on the basis of FBI documents released by the Freedom of Information Act that outlined an attempt to frame him for the killing. Jones said if it weren't for the Freedom of Information Act, he would still be in prison.

11. "Widespread Water Violations Decried"
By Eric Pianin, The Washington Post, 7 August 2002.

Using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a report finding that nearly one-third of major industrial facilities and government-operated sewage treatment plants have significantly violated pollution discharge regulations during the past two years, but relatively few are being prosecuted. Using the Freedom of Information Act, PIRG analyzed the behavior of industrial facilities, municipal treatment works and federal installations by reviewing violations between January 2000 and March 2001, as recorded in the EPA's permit compliance system database.

12. "Feds: Morris Brown Misused Student Aid"
By Kelly Simmons, The Atlantic Journal and Constitution,29 September 2002

As federal investigators look into whether or not Morris Brown College illegally used $8 million in student financial aid to pay overdue bills, The Atlantic Journal and Constitution, using U.S. Department of Education records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act document how Morris Brown administrators obtained grants and loans on behalf of students who were ineligible for the money. Many of the students had dropped out or never even attended the school. School officials may have knowingly kept money they received for students who were no longer enrolled. Federal authorities have asked Morris Brown to repay $5.4 million of the aid because the school has not been able to prove that the money went to qualified students.

13. "Former Army Scientist Forged Ph.D. Certificate, School Says"
By Scott Shane, The Baltimore Sun, 9 October 2002

As the media broke the story that Dr. Steven J. Hatfill, a former Army bioweapons scientist had been claiming to have a Ph.D. he never received, Dr. Hatfill defended himself by claiming he had completed the work for the degree at Rhodes University in South Africa and assumed the degree had been granted. When applying for a research job in 1995, Hatfill provided the National Institutes of Health with a handsome Rhodes University Ph.D. certificate in molecular cell biology with his name on it, signed by the university vice chancellor and other officials. A copy of the Ph.D. certificate was obtained by The Baltimore Sun from the NIH under the Freedom of Information Act. Rhodes University officials say the certificate is a forgery. The university seal is not in the right place, the vice chancellor's signature has the wrong middle initial and other names are made up.

14. "The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory"
By Arthur Allen, The New York Times, 10 November 2002

New scientific research and documents recently released under the Freedom of Information Act are questioning the safety of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative that is found in small amounts in several vaccines commonly administered to American children. Safe Minds, an advocacy group of parents who believe that their autistic children were damaged by thimerosal, used FOIA to obtain records showing that as early as December 1999 the C.D.C. had reason to believe that thimerosal caused developmental delays in some children. An FDA study found that vaccines administered over the past decade have tripled the dose of mercury that infants got in their first few months of life. As many as 30 million American children may have been exposed to mercury in excess of Environmental Protection Agency guidelines -- levels of mercury that, in theory, could have killed enough brain cells to alter brain functioning. Autism is being diagnosed in numbers far higher than ever before, suggesting that a nongenetic cause may be partly to blame.

15. "The Vertical Vision/ Part I: The Widow-Maker"
By Alan C. Miller and Kevin Sack, The Los Angeles Times, 15 December 2002.

Military documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act chronicled the troubled history of the most dangerous airplane flying in the U.S. military today -- the Marine Corps' Harrier attack jet. The Harrier has suffered the highest major accident rate of any Air Force, Army, Navy or Marine plane currently in service, having killed 45 Marines in 143 non-combat accidents since the Marines began using the jet in 1971. More than a third of the fleet of jets has been lost to accidents. The Marines released documents through FOIA that provided information on Harrier safety, maintenance and combat records, including a breakdown of accidents and fatalities. The Los Angeles Times ran a four-part story on the plane, which some Marine aviators call "The Widow-Maker."

16. "Doomed plane's gaming system exposes holes in FAA oversight"
By Gary Stoller, USA Today, 17 February 2003

Reviewing tens of thousands of pages of government documents, including more than 1,000 pages obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, USA Today connected the Sept. 2, 1998, crash of Swissair Flight 111 with the flight's entertainment system. The system, which allowed passengers to select and watch movies on personal consoles, shop and use credit cards to play computer casino games, was made by Interactive Flight Technologies (IFT), a Las Vegas company that was formed only four years before the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned all use of IFT technologies a year after the crash, but received heavy criticism for not catching the problems sooner. Documents obtained under FOIA revealed that no one directly employed by the FAA had ever reviewed IFT system's design or installation plans, supervised the installation or signed off on any work. All of that was done by a company that the FAA authorized to approve plane modifications on its behalf. After the Swissair crash, the FAA tightened oversight of private companies and individuals authorized to act on its behalf, but problems remain.

17. "Study details MTA woes; Buses average breakdown every 976 miles of service; Peer agencies more reliable; Report details problems with maintenance, safety"
By Stephen Kiehl, The Baltimore Sun, 21 April 2003

Freedom of Information Act requests to the Maryland State Department of Transportation yielded documents revealing that buses operated by the Maryland Transit Administration are less reliable and more prone to breakdowns than buses in comparable transit agencies. MTA buses break down in the middle of a run once every 976 miles - largely due to poor maintenance and management. Buses in eight peer agencies average 2,700 miles between breakdowns. MTA bus drivers are supposed to inspect their vehicles before each run and fill out a pre-inspection report noting problems. But documents showed that some drivers are known to fill out a week's worth of reports in advance.

18. "'Do Not Call' List Operator AT&T Leads in Complaints"
By Caroline E. Mayer, The Washington Post, 23 April 2003

According to Federal Communications Commission data obtained through FOIA, 5,714 complaints were lodged against AT&T's telemarketing practices in 2001, 2002 and the first three months of this year. It is 22 percent more than the number of complaints received about MCI, which generated the second-highest number of complaints, and more than three times the number received about third-ranked Sprint Communications Co. This fact is notable when placed alongside the news that AT&T recently won a 10-year, multimillion-dollar contract bid put forth by the federal government to set up a nationwide "do not call" to prevent unwanted telemarketing calls.

19. "Wandering weapons: America's lax arsenal"
By Sydney P. Freedberg and Connie Humburg, St. Petersburg Times, 11 May 2003

Documents made public by the Pentagon in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the St. Petersburg Times, indicate that since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, thousands of pounds of explosives, hundreds of mines, mortars, grenades and firearms and dozens of rockets and artillery rounds have been lost or stolen from U.S. stockpiles and have possibly been misused. In many of the documented 242 cases the lost or stolen munitions were safely recovered, however some remain unaccounted for. And at least four devices have blown up, injuring 15 people. The Army was the most responsive branch of the military, releasing 223 incident reports. The Navy and Marines made public 15 reports of lost munitions, and the Department of Defense released four. The Air Force did not release any reports. Army documents obtained through FOIA indicated that oversight was so lax at a few bases that it was easy to steal almost anything designed to cause death or serious battlefield injuries and elaborated that one case, classified guidance systems for three Stinger missiles disappeared somewhere between Fort Bliss, Texas, and Tucson, Ariz., in 1998 or 1999.

20. "Number of missing DCFS Wards Doubles"
By Chris Fusco, Chicago Sun-Times, 29 April 2003, p. 18.

Prompted by a Freedom of Information Act request from the Chicago Sun-Times, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services acknowledged that 460 children had been "lost" in the foster care system. The announcement was made by the Governor of Illinois in conjunction with the appointment of a new director for the Department and the release of a taskforce report outlining an ambitious program of reforms. It was further revealed that Department officials and staff had sought to cover-up the large number of missing children by altering their recordkeeping.

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