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FOIA in the News - 2003-2004

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

More FOIA News Stories - 2001 | 2002-2003 | 2004-2006

38 NOTEWORTHY ARTICLES MADE POSSIBLE BY FOIA IN 2003-2004

1. "U.S. Scrutinized Assets Well Before War; Documents Tell of Cheney Group's Look at Iraq," The Houston Chronicle, July 19, 2003, at Business 1, by David Ivanovich.

According to documents obtained by public interest group Judicial Watch through a legal battle under FOIA, Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force examined maps of Iraqi oil fields, refineries, and pipelines in March 2001. Documents also show lists of companies that were interested in conducting business with Saddam Hussein's Iraq regime. Other documents show oil and gas projects in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

2. "Feds Don't Track Airline Watchlist Mishaps," The Associated Press State & Local Wire, July 24, 2003, at State and Regional, by David Kravets.

The Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) does not keep track of how many passengers are being subjected to delays because of confusion over security watchlists. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained documents through FOIA showing that, while names are added almost daily to the two airline watchlists, the TSA sees no need to monitor "false positive" situations. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to force the government to release the names on the lists, explain how names are placed on them, and how individuals can remove their names from them.

3. "Critical Flaws in Shuttles Loom as Potential Disaster Systems Constantly Malfunction or Fail, but NASA Thinks the Problems Aren't Dangerous Enough to Doom a Flight," The Orlando Sentinel, Aug. 17, 2003, at A1, by Kevin Spear and Jim Leusner.

The Orlando Sentinel reviewed thousands of hazard-evaluation studies and malfunction reports obtained through FOIA from all 113 past shuttle missions revealing critical flaws and the responses to them. Critics argue that the responses have been inadequate and NASA has ignored flaws. The problems include the misfiring of explosive bolts used to attach the shuttle to the launch pad, faulty wiring, fuel leaks, thruster failures, and foam damage from the external fuel tank.

4. "Extra IDs a Liability for Hill, 13 Other Bases," Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City), Aug. 21, 2003, at B1, by Lee Davidson.

Extra identification badges have been issued and unaccounted for at a number of Air Force bases raising concerns about security and the possibility of improper access to the bases. Documents obtained by The Deseret Morning News through FOIA show that the Air Force's own investigation found that 13 bases did not properly control and monitor ID cards for contractors. Additionally, the documents show that nearly half of the contractors given access to sensitive computer systems at one base had not undergone criminal background checks.

5. "Watchdog Says Hanford Workers at Risk," The Oregonian, Sep. 16, 2003, at B10, by Joe Rojas-Bourke.

A nonprofit group's report based in part on documents it obtained through FOIA cites increased incidents of vapor exposure to and physician visits by workers at a nuclear clean up site. The workers are transferring radioactive and chemical waste to safer holding tanks to await a more permanent disposal.

6. "The Slaughterhouse Gamble: The Risk of Self-Policing; New Safety Rules Fail to Stop Tainted Meat," The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2003, at A1, by Melody Petersen and Christopher Drew, Bud Hazelkorn contributed to this report.

Meat inspectors' reports obtained through FOIA from the Food Safety and Inspection Service indicate the presence of contaminants on food as it is processed at meatpacking plants, even after it has gone through the plant's safety processes. Inspectors also reported several cases in which meat that had been condemned because of disease or contamination was not marked or clearly removed from production. In one example, an inspector ordered meat not to be shipped after finding out that cuts of meat condemned the previous day had been readied for shipment. Additionally, the article concludes that inspector's reports and recommendations to take action often go unheeded.

7. "Mission of Sacrifice Series: Casualties of Peace, Part One of Seven Parts," Dayton Daily News (Ohio), Oct. 26, 2003, at A1, by Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood.

Documents obtained through FOIA by The Dayton Daily News show the dangers that Peace Corps volunteers face. The information from 1991-2002, including never-before-released statistics, shows that volunteers are frequently placed in dangerous situations, substandard housing, and with little training. Volunteers are increasingly victims of robbery, sexual assault, and murder.

8. "False Evidence Cited in Overturning Arms Dealer's Case," The Washington Post, Oct. 30, 2003, at A16, by Dana Priest.

Evidence gathered from documents obtained from the Department of Justice through FOIA helped overturn a conviction of a former CIA operative, Edwin Wilson. The operative had been convicted of arms dealing with Libya, but claimed that the activities were part of his cover. The documents show that officials with the CIA and the Justice Department knew that Wilson had extended high-level relationships with CIA officials during the period of the arms dealing, but denied this in court. "'In the course of American justice,' the judge in the case wrote, 'one would have to work hard to conceive of a more fundamentally unfair process with a consequentially unreliable result than the fabrication of false data by the government, under oath by a government official, presented knowingly by the prosecutor in the courtroom with the express approval of his superiors in Washington.'"

9. "Program Blasted by HUD; City Told to Halt Housing Repairs," The Houston Chronicle, Nov. 13, 2003, at A29, by Dan Feldstein.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) ordered the city of Houston to suspend a housing-assistance program for poor-quality work and overpayment to contractors. The Houston Chronicle obtained documents through FOIA that show HUD inspections turned up numerous problems with homes that had been worked on as part of the Houston program. Among the problems HUD cited were poor work quality, incomplete work, and discrepancies in the estimated amount of materials and those actually used. Homeowners, also complained of negative attitudes among workers and contractors and lack of information provided about equipment and warranties.

10. "Documents Say 60 Nuclear Chain Reactions Possible," Las Vegas Review-Journal (Nevada), Nov. 26, 2003, at 5B, by Keith Rogers.

Nevada state officials have raised concerns regarding the possibility of an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction inside the planned Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. The state obtained documents through FOIA that report on such possibilities and appear to contradict Department of Energy statistics in its final impact statement.

11. "A Flawed Terrorist Yardstick; The Justice Dept. Tally of More Than 280 Suspects Detained for Prosecution After Sept. 11 Is Inflated with Dismissed and Unrelated Cases," The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 1, 2003, at A1, by Richard B. Schmitt.

The Los Angeles Times conducted a review of documents obtained from the Department of Justice through FOIA concerning the Department's statistics of prosecutions related to terrorism since September 11, 2001. The review found instances of individuals who were arrested, found not to have any terrorist links, and not prosecuted. Yet, these individuals were still part of the statistics the Department of Justice cites as terrorism-related charges when commenting on the progress of its anti-terrorism efforts.

12. "Mining Leaders Drafting Steens Blueprint," The Oregonian, Dec. 3, 2003, at A1, by Michael Milstein.

The Oregonian obtained documents under FOIA that raise questions about possible conflicts of interest of a private management company hired by the Bureau of Land Management. The company was hired to develop management options for one of the largest public landscapes in Oregon, including handling public comments. Officials of the company, however, also hold positions in the mining industry, some having made comments opposed to public involvement in land management decisions.

13. "Stealth Merger: Drug Companies and Government Medical Research; Some of the National Institutes of Health's Top Scientists Are Also Collecting Paychecks and Stock Options from Biomedical Firms. Increasingly, Such Deals Are Kept Secret," The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7, 2003, at A1, by David Willman.

The Los Angeles Times conducted an investigation of payments from drug companies to employees of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the agency's research collaborations with the industry. Documents obtained from the NIH under FOIA showed that researchers and scientists receive consulting fees and stock options from biomedical companies. The NIH allows the majority of its officials to keep such income confidential and does not require that it be reported in financial disclosures. The practices raise ethical concerns regarding whether those incomes will affect researchers' decisions regarding the safety of subject patients, public health, and the interpretation of study results.

14. "Papers Show How Pennsylvania Nuclear Plant Prepared for Terror Threat," York Daily Record (York, Pennsylvania), Dec. 16, 2003, by Sean Adkins.

The York Daily Record obtained reports and notes from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission through FOIA that detail the response of officials to a threat on a nuclear reactor. The materials describe the timeline and response of plant, state, and federal agencies and officials to a purported threat to one of the reactors at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The threat did not turn out to be credible. The chronology has been used to improve and coordinate a response to future threats.

15. "Scramble for Energy Pits Drillers, Ranchers, Landowners in Wyoming Say Efforts to Extract Methane Undermine Their Rights," The Denver Post, Dec. 21, 2003, at A1, by Mike Soraghan.

The Powder River Basin has large natural gas deposits of great interest to energy companies. As a result of environmental concerns and pressure, a moratorium on development was imposed in 1999. The Bureau of Land Management conducted an environmental impact statement to determine what impact the increasing drilling would have on the river basin. A local Wyoming environmental group learned through a FOIA request that the study was conducted by an environmental consultant that also writes permit applications for companies seeking to drill in the basin. Critics challenge the impartiality of the report and the comprehensiveness of the environmental options it examined.

16. "Transcript: U.S. OK'd 'Dirty War' in Argentina," The Miami Herald, Dec. 4, 2003, at 1A, by Daniel A. Grech.

Documents obtained by the National Security Archive through FOIA from the Department of State show that the U.S. approved of the Argentine military junta's use of harsh tactics against leftists in the 1970s. The document shows that Secretary of State Kissinger gave the green light to the Argentine foreign minister to hurry up and finish the military's "dirty war" - which resulted in the deaths and disappearances of 30,000 people from 1975 to 1983. Previously, Kissinger and other top aides denied condoning the human rights abuses in Argentina.

17. "Federal Coal-Mining Policy Comes Under Fire; Fish and Wildlife Service Says the Administration Ignored Its Protection Plan," The Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7, 2004, at A13, by Elizabeth Shogren.

Documents obtained though FOIA show that the Bush administration's move to let coal miners continue the practice of "mountaintop removal" ignored environmental concerns raised by government officials. The coal mining process levels mountain tops and discards the leftover rock into valleys and streams. The administration revised a previous draft environmental impact study that examined limiting the process, and substituted three alternative approaches. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said these alternatives do not improve environmental protection. The documents include a memo from Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles recommending a new draft, directing officials to say that he was not involved in "finalizing the document," and information on how to respond to questions about his involvement in the change.

18. "Green Groups Sue EPA for Closed-Door Meetings with Chemical Companies," The Register Guard (Eugene, Oregon), Jan. 16, 2004, by Scott Maben.

A number of environmental interest groups have filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for meeting with a group of chemical companies behind closed doors. Documents obtained under FOIA show that the pesticide industry group has met privately with EPA officials at the same time that it has urged the agency to dilute protections for Northwest salmon and other endangered species. The environmental groups claim that such closed-door meetings violate federal law requiring agency meetings with advisory groups to be open to the public.

19. "Northwest Gave U.S. Data on Passengers; Airline Had Denied Sharing Information for Security Effort," The Washington Post, Jan. 18, 2004, at A1, by Sara Kehaulani Goo.

Documents obtained under FOIA by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) show that Northwest supplied information on millions of its passengers who flew from October to December 2001. Northwest supplied the information, without passenger knowledge, to NASA for a project on aviation security. Northwest had previously denied any information sharing after another airline, JetBlue, acknowledged that it had turned over passenger information to a defense contractor.

20. "Experts Say USDA Officials Underestimate Mad-Cow Risk," The Denver Post, Feb. 13, 2004, at A7, by Anne C. Mulkern.

Experts argue that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) underestimates the risk of mad cow disease outbreaks. The USDA argues that the risk is very low, citing a Harvard University study. The comments of scientists critical of the Harvard study were not released by the USDA until The Denver Post filed FOIA requests seeking them. The critics cite unrealistic assumptions and incorrect mathematical models in determining the risk of a mad cow disease outbreak in the U.S.

21. "Chemawa Warnings Date to '89," The Oregonian, Feb. 20, 2004, at A1, by Kim Christensen and Kara Briggs.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had been warned for 15 years about the dangers of holding intoxicated students at its Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in Salem, Oregon. The Oregonian obtained documents through FOIA that show that BIA officials failed to act on repeated warnings by Indian Health Service officials regarding the school's "holding cells," citing the lack of supervision and availability of medical treatment. A sixteen year old girl recently died in one of the cells due to alcohol poisoning.

22. "NASA Can't Find Millions in Property," The Houston Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2004, at A1, by Patty Reinert.

NASA documents obtained through a FOIA request by a San Antonio television station show that the agency has lost about $34 million in government property since 1997. The information details the missing items from each of the agency's ten centers. The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, had the highest losses at $16.8 million, while NASA's Washington, D.C., headquarters had the least with $174,000.

23. "Seeing Murder in a Face; A Family Refuses to Believe a Battered Prisoner Hanged Himself, as Officials Say. The U.S. Government Has Reopened the Case," The Los Angeles Times, Mar. 9, 2004, at A1, by Richard A. Serrano.

The Department of Justice reopened the investigation into the death of an inmate in an Oklahoma federal prison nine years after the incident. Originally, the death was ruled a suicide. However, the family of the inmate refused to believe that explanation in light of the various bruises and wounds found on his body. As a result of a FOIA request, the family learned of an erased videotape, that the inmate's cell was cleaned prior to the arrival of the FBI, inconsistent statements from prison guards, and forensic evidence apparently inconsistent with the official explanation.

24. "Review: Director of Aging Agency Earned Nearly $460,000 in 2003," The Associated Press State & Local Wire, Mar. 24, 2004, at State and Regional, by Michelle Saxton.

The director of a West Virginia County Council on Aging is being investigated for his nearly $460,000 salary and sick leave payouts. The Associated Press obtained state investigation documents through a FOIA request. The documents show that the official was paid far more than counterparts in other counties and that he took steps to adjust the composition of the Council's board to remove outside agency representation and consolidate record-keeping and financial responsibilities.

25. "D.C. Knew of Lead Problems in 2002; Timing of E-Mails Contradicts Claims," The Washington Post, Mar. 29, 2004, at A1, by Carol D. Leonnig and David Nakamura.

Documents obtained by The Washington Post through a FOIA request show that District of Columbia officials knew of unsafe levels of lead in the city's water 15 months before the public learned of the problem. The D.C. Department of Health maintained that they did not know of the problem until early 2004. However, e-mails between the Department of Health and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority indicate that the Department was aware of the contamination in October 2002.

26. "Tension in Venezuela; Activist Eyes Groups' Funding; Brooklyn Lawyer Says U.S. Government Funds Are Aiding Those Trying to Overthrow President," Newsday (New York), Apr. 4, 2004, at A24, by Bart Jones.

A New York immigration lawyer has raised questions about U.S. organizations' funding for groups in opposition to Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez. Documents she requested through FOIA show that several Venezuelan groups associated with the government's opposition have received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded private organization. The endowment provides grants to nongovernmental organizations that strengthen democratic institutions. The leaders of two groups the endowment has funded served in the opposition's cabinet when Mr. Chávez was briefly ousted in 2002, a coup that the White House initially endorsed. A third group that has received funding has helped a recall petition of Mr. Chávez by collecting signatures.

27. "Group: Industry Exceeds Clean Water Act," Waste News, Apr. 12, 2004, by Bruce Geiselman.

The U.S. Public Information Research Group (PIRG) obtained documents through FOIA from the Environmental Protection Agency that show more than 60 percent of industrial and municipal facilities nationwide exceeded their Clean Water Act permit limits at least once. During the eighteen month period beginning January 2002, the average facility exceeded their permit limit by 600 percent.

28. "GI Sex Cases from Iraq Often Stall; Army Records Show Prosecution Rare, Reprimands from Officers Common," The Denver Post, Apr. 12, 2004, at A1, by Miles Moffeit.

Army documents obtained through FOIA by The Denver Post show that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan accused of sex crimes are given light administrative punishments. Military commanders have broad discretion in how to deal with accused soldiers and it is up to them to recommend criminal prosecution. The documents show that soldiers often receive demotions in rank, fines, or discharge - or no punishment at all - even when investigations have not been fully completed. Of thirty-seven accusation cases from February to December 2003, four were court-martialed - and only two of those resulted in convictions.

29. "Campbell Sought Way Around Bidding Process, Records Show," The Associated Press Newswires, Apr. 13, 2004, by Robert Gehrke.

The Associated Press obtained documents through the FOIA showing a two year effort of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell's (R-CO) office to speed up funding for a technology project in Colorado. The documents show that Campbell secured funding for a computer networking project by an Oregon company, Thinkstream, for use by agencies of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and then urged the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to award the funding directly to a Colorado sheriff's department to circumvent the bidding process. When, after a visit to Thinkstream, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area's board suggested opening up the project to bidding, a letter with Campbell's signature scolded the board for not going ahead with the project. Campbell has claimed he did not sign the letter and his office has since asked for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation to look into whether a staffer improperly used his signature to lobby the board.

30. "Rat-Poison Makers Stall Safety Rules; EPA Had Drafted Regulations to Protect Children, Animals," The Washington Post, Apr. 15, 2004, at A3, by Juliet Eilperin.

According to internal documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council through FOIA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave the rodenticide industry broad access to its regulation decision making. Beginning in August 1998, the EPA concluded that rat poison posed a significant risk to children and animals. As a result, the agency called for two new safeguards in the formulation of rat poison. By 2001, however, the EPA had abandoned the new regulations, citing "mutual agreement" with the industry. The documents show that the industry was given broad access to revise EPA documents describing the environmental impact of rat poison on wildlife. The review, which was termed "error only," lasted 15 months during which time consumer and environmental groups were not consulted.

31. "Texas Official Seeks HHS Probe; Ex-Head Start Leader Denies She Misused Funds," The Washington Times, Apr. 22, 2004, at A12, by Cheryl Wetzstein.

The National Head Start Association (NHSA) accused a former Head Start chapter head, and now Department of Health and Human Services official, of misconduct during her tenure in Texas. NHSA claims that documents obtained under FOIA show that $140,000 in overbilling occurred under the official's watch, as well as unauthorized bonuses and a vacation time payout.

32. "Pentagon Ban on Pictures of Dead Troops Is Broken," The New York Times, Apr., 23 2004, at A14, Bill Carter, by Jim Rutenberg and Mindy Sink contributed reporting for this article.

Russ Kick, who operates the website the Memory Hole, obtained photographs of flag-covered coffins of deceased soldiers returning from Iraq through the FOIA. Initially, Kick's request was denied by the Air Force but, upon appeal, 361 photographs were released to him. The release broke a ban that the Pentagon had issued prohibiting media coverage of arriving coffins. An employee of a defense contractor and her husband were fired when she released a photo of flag-draped coffins she had taken while on a military transport plane. News organizations were unaware that such photographs even existed - unaware the Pentagon was continuing to take pictures for historical purposes. These organizations have argued that the release of such photos should be allowed as part of the national dialogue on the Iraq war. Polls have also shown that public support favors release of such photos.

33. "Navy Confirms Weapons Facility Was Temporarily Decertified," The Associated Press State & Local Wire, Apr. 24, 2004, at State and Regional.

A local Washington state newspaper, The Bremerton Sun, confirmed an incident at a local Navy submarine facility where a nuclear missile was mishandled. The paper received an e-mail from its FOIA request that described the reassignment of officers in charge of the facility and the facility's decertification to handle nuclear weapons for more than two months.

34. "Salem Faces $385,000 in Fines for Crime Reporting Violations," The Associated Press Newswires, May, 21 2004, by Pam Ramsey.

Security on Campus, a watchdog group, obtained a report from the Department of Education through the FOIA that shows that Salem International University faces up to $385,000 in fines for failing to report campus crime as required by federal law. The report indicates that the university's campus security failed in many respects, including the reporting of sexual offenses and under-reporting incidents. Mount St. Clare College in Iowa is the only other school that has been fined under the twelve year old Jeanne Clery Act.

35. "FBI Invoked Controversial Search Power - ACLU," Reuters News, June 17, 2004, by Gail Appleson.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through FOIA show that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempted to use the controversial section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The provision allows the FBI to seek court permission to secretly review confidential materials - such as business, doctor, university or library records - without the knowledge of the target of the investigation. Previously, Attorney General John Ashcroft has denied any usage of section 215.

36. "Alabama Tobacco Growers Stand to Benefit from Proposed Federal Buyout," Montgomery Advertiser, June 23, 2004, by Ana Radelat.

The Environmental Working Group obtained documents from the Department of Agriculture through FOIA that detail Alabamians who would receive tobacco buyouts under a current proposal in Congress. The Environmental Working Group opposes the planned buyout because the group sees it as a benefit to large tobacco growers and companies. The group's study says that two-thirds of the $9.6 billion buyout would go to only ten percent of growers, with more than eighty percent of those eligible receiving less than $1,000 a year over five years.

37. "Growing Tobacco, and Controversy; Students Cultivate a Crop They're Taught to Avoid," The Washington Post, June 26, 2004, at A1, by Manuel Roig-Franzia.

The Washington Post obtained documents from the Department of Agriculture through FOIA that shows that 41 school districts - in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia - grew almost 50,000 pounds of tobacco in 2003. The schools use tobacco quotas that came with purchased land to grow tobacco as a means of teaching agriculture and as a source of revenue. The practice raises questions about the propriety of schools collecting revenue from tobacco and whether it undermines efforts at anti-smoking health prevention.

38. "White House Help Sought on N-dump," The Salt Lake Tribune, June 28, 2004, at A1, by Robert Gehrke.

Documents obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council's FOIA lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney show that a Utah company asked for help from Mr. Cheney's Energy Task Force. Private Fuel Storage, seeking to build a nuclear waste storage facility on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah, sent a letter asking the Task Force to urge the Defense Department to complete a study necessary for the company to gain final approval of the project. The letter appeared to prompt a meeting between Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles and the company's lobbyist. The Task Force also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior inquiring what was needed to move forward with approval of the project.

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