When I first learned about the Freedom of Information Act, I pictured something resembling a high-security vending machine: you punch in what you want and, instantly, pages upon pages of high-level, top-secret information are dispensed on command.
Unfortunately, this paints a somewhat unrealistic picture of the work we do at the UW Center for Human Rights. In the classic comparison, FOIA is definitely more of a marathon than a sprint, but that view is still limiting. We would be better off not seeing FOIA as a test of individual determination, exceptional recordkeeping, and that je ne sais quoi (usually the ability to sue) that makes some requesters so successful at prying loose government secrets. Instead, it’s time we call this work what it is: the great FOIA relay race.
Few private citizens can spend years of their lives and possibly hundreds of their own dollars requesting records the government ought to provide promptly and free of charge. However, those of us lucky enough to have FOIA work as part of our day job, can and should see our requests in an ever-unfinished task of bettering the public’s knowledge of the state’s goings-on.
For my work at the UWCHR, I have filed dozens of FOIAs with federal agencies. For the most part, our work on Central America seeks records from the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and the State Department. Anyone who has filed for records from these agencies knows these requests are slow. Very, very slow. Most of the actual documents I’ve been responsible for handling were not sent in response to my own requests; they were often replies to FOIAs filed as long ago as 2015.
Shifting my point of view on this work from marathon to relay race has not only made the sometimes tedious administrative side of FOIA more meaningful, but also more effective at finding the information we’ve been asked to look for.
Over the summer, we received an installment of records from the DIA. These records happened to be Defense Intelligence Notices, or DINs, from June and July 1982. The first step in processing “new” records is verifying that they really are new. In this case, one of the documents, DIADIN 175-4B, showed up in our files as having previously been released in 2017. This is usually a disappointing discovery; why wait years for a document we already have? In fact, the redactions nearly reversed themselves between the 2017 and 2021 releases.
Aside from giving us new information—especially in points two and three regarding joint operations with the Honduran armed forces (see images of documents below)—these disparities in redactions will help build an argument to appeal for the full declassification of the text. Particularly for points one and six; the entire text of these sections was released in 2017, so there is no reasonable argument for withholding it now.
Comparison of two versions of a Defense Intelligence Agency cable DIADIN 175-4B, released under FOIA in 2017 and 2021. (Page 1 of 3.)
Receiving the same records under multiple requests with different redactions seems frustrating, but it becomes fruitful in the relay race mindset.
In this installment of records, we also received two new-to-us DINs, both of which are heavily redacted. While the DIA willingly releasing new information is positive, we do not have an easy method of determining whether these documents were already out in the wild—technically public and languishing in a folder on some faraway computer.
Successive versions of the cable have nearly reversed redactions, which give evidence of highly-detailed U.S. intelligence on Salvadoran military operations. (Page 2 of 3.)
The analysis and appeal of DIADIN 175-4B are only possible because we already had the record in our digital files and accessible through the UW Libraries. One small release of records serves here as a reminder that without the communal infrastructure the UWCHR has built over the years, the great FOIA relay race falls apart before it can begin.
These documents will be used to argue for the release of the full text of this and related cables. (Page 3 of 3.)
Now that I’ve graduated from the UW and reached the end of my personal leg of the relay, I’m passing the baton on to the next set of smart and dedicated students, entrusting them with the products of the last two and a half years of my work with the UWCHR. I was lucky to find a home at the Center halfway through my sophomore year, and being involved here indelibly shaped the rest of my university education. Freedom of information work and archival research gave me a new perspective in my classwork, no matter how unrelated to human rights it seemed. I can navigate public records whether they are federal intelligence reports from half a century ago or local city documents created last week. Having been given responsibility for the Center’s projects on Central America, I developed the skills to create my own original research projects. At the Center, it became clear to me that teaching, learning, and researching should never be isolated activities. Supporting students by letting them take the reins in research creates the next generation of teacher, young people with skills and knowledge to share, continuing a necessary cycle.
In the fall of 2021, I am moving to Madrid, Spain, to work as an assistant teacher in a bilingual public school just outside the capital. Spending every day with elementary schoolers will be a big change of pace from life at UW, but I’m eager to get classroom experience and to learn with and from kids half a world away from Seattle.
Maya graduated in June 2021 with a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and International Studies.