Saturday, January 7, 2017

FOIA Appeal sent to CG - Effort now over three years old

The response to the CG FOIA Release of 7 October went out this afternoon. The text is as follows:

27 December, 2016

Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard  - STOP 7710
2703 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE 
Washington, DC 20593-7710
Staff Symbol: CG-611

RE: Final Response - FOIA Appeal 2014-025

Dear ADM Zukunft (CAPT Michael Ryan), CAPT Messale, et al --

I am writing in response to the “final response” from the U.S. Coast Guard dated 7 October 2016 regarding the above-referenced FOIA request and associated appeal. Despite the lengthy amount of time that elapsed between the submission of my appeal in November 2015 and the CG response in October 2016, the answer from the U.S. Coast Guard is still deficient in that the Coast Guard’s efforts to fulfill the original request was insufficient/incomplete. This matter should still be considered open.

In a general observation, there is a ridiculous amount of over-redaction throughout the documentation. One of the main purposes of FOIA is to prevent the government from hiding information about its operations and to provide accountability. Hiding the circumstances around the actions of government employees and officials to prevent a range of response from embarrassment to prosecution is certainly not a legitimate reason for the government to withhold information. This flies in the face of what FOIA is intended to do. Though his administration is now over, when he was taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued a letter to all Federal department heads to supposedly usher in a new era of open government. 

This withholding of information is inconsistent with the transparency and good government guidelines established by President Obama in his Open Government Initiative announced in 2009. 

The President’s instructions were very clear: 

“Government should be transparent.  Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.  Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use... “ 

And further:

“A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.  The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA…”  

This openness is also backed up by then-Attorney General Eric Holder in his March 2009 memorandum related to FOIA.   

“First, an agency should not withhold information simply because it may do so legally. I strongly encourage agencies to make discretionary disclosures of information. An agency should not withhold records merely because it can demonstrate, as a technical matter, that the records fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption. 

… But as the President stated in his memorandum, ‘The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.’ 

… FOIA professionals should be mindful of their obligation to work ‘in a spirit of cooperation’ with FOIA requesters, as President Obama has directed. Unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles have no place in the ‘new era of open Government’ that the President has proclaimed.”

Coast Guard officials assert that the redaction of the STORIS documents released on 7 October is necessary to protect the privacy of those whose names were redacted. The problem is that we are not asking for private information related to these Coast Guard officials and officers. This isn’t matter of invading anyone’s privacy by requesting addresses, birthdays or Social Security numbers. These emails and documents are directly related to official actions these officers carried out as part of their duty in service to the U.S. Coast Guard. This is not protected personal information or other sensitive data to justify redaction. It appears to simply be an attempt by the Coast Guard to arbitrarily redact and hide the identity of various officers and officials who do not want to be associated with the destruction of the ship. There has been a backlash from STORIS Veterans and members of the public who cared about that cutter. Now the agency involved wants to hide the involvement of those responsible. The arbitrary nature of the redaction becomes clear when you realize that other officers’ names were not redacted, up to the rank of RADM. The actions and comments within this context is official action within the official capacities of these officers and officials as part of the U.S. Coast Guard. This redaction of these STORIS-related documents is an overreaction and overreach to my request.

The specific problems that were not addressed in the Coast Guard’s response of 7 October are very similar to the issues I pointed out with my last appeal letter submitted on 15 November 2015. These are as follows:

1. The response did not address at all the missing hazardous materials manifests and remediation documentation that was requested in the original submission of 4 November 2013. 

Once again, it is my understanding from speaking with several retired Coast Guard officers that it is a routine procedure that once a cutter has been decommissioned from Coast Guard service, the associated records and documentation for that cutter are removed from the Technical Library/Office of Cutter Forces. At the time of my original FOIA request of 4 Nov. 2013, the CGC STORIS had been decommissioned almost seven full years. Therefore, as a matter of procedure, the records associated with CGC STORIS would have been purged well before my inquiry. Yet the Coast Guard has responded that a comprehensive search of Cutter Forces records was undertaken, at a facility – according to operating procedure – that would no longer serve as a repository for those records. 

One overall question becomes a matter of what the full procedure for the records purge involves. Are the records for decommissioned cutters disposed of/destroyed or are they moved to a separate archival facility somewhere else, such as the National Archives and Records Administration? The only records for STORIS that are immediately identifiable within NARA holdings are some Night Order books, many ship’s logbooks in Washington, DC, and a drawing set at the NARA facility at College Park, MD. Again, to say that a full search of the Cutter Forces facility was performed when that facility as a matter of procedure would no longer hold the requested records is quite disingenuous.

There is also the matter of the “completeness” of the described search.

2. Attached is an email from retired Commandant Papp to Jim Loback, president of the STORIS Museum. Copied on this email is current Commandant Paul Zukunft. It’s likely that there are other such communications and documents within Coast Guard holdings. Once Admiral Papp became involved, he would have sent correspondence related to this issue to his Chief Counsel (Judge Advocate General) and to Coast Guard Congressional Affairs.  I have received none of these related emails. In addition, these other parties would have responded via email as it is standard practice for Coast Guard senior leadership to communicate internally for these types of matters using the email system. It is also likely there was other correspondence among the officers involved to discuss further this situation with the ship. Again, we didn't receive anything of the sort.

3. Another critical document not provided by the U.S. Coast Guard is the “Specifications for the Lay Up Preparations of USCGC STORIS (WMEC-38) May 2007,” prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard Maintenance and Logistics Command Pacific Naval Engineering Division. This document was obtained by searching other U.S. government resources, and was not provided by the Coast Guard. This is particularly problematic considering it contains specific information directly related to the request. There is also likely a separate stream of communications from within the Coast Guard related to the creation of this document. There would also be communication between the Coast Guard and the external contractors who performed the work. We have seen nothing related to this document.

4. Pages 28-29 of the materials released on 7 October directly reference a MISLE report for a vessel inspection performed on STORIS on 3 September 2013. The email correspondence discusses the report directly, but the Coast Guard did not provide an actual copy of the report, which is likely No. 4706182 based on the link, which obviously cannot be accessed outside the CG computer servers. This is an obvious deficiency for the response. The correspondence is attached for reference.

These examples clearly demonstrate that there are materials that exist related to CGC STORIS and her excessing, sale and disposal that the U.S. Coast Guard did not send in response to my FOIA inquiry.

As stated previously, STORIS was a nationally significant historic ship listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This recognition should have encouraged her preservation and interpretation for posterity, following established Federal law, best practices and precedent. Instead, she received expedited destruction at the hands of the Federal Government bureaucracy. There is keen interest in how this great ship was allowed to be destroyed and an expectation of full transparency from this administration.

Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated.


Jon A. Ottman

on behalf of the STORIS Museum of Juneau, Alaska (dissolved 2014), The Last Patrol Museum of Toledo, Ohio 
as well as the veterans and supporters of the USCGC STORIS

CC: Nikki Gramian, Office of Government Information Systems, NARA
Ref OGIS File No. 201400438 - USCG FOIA 2014-0566 of Nov. 4, 2013 re: USCGC STORIS (WMEC-38)   

Danielle Ivory, New York Times

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