Bin Laden Burial at Sea Docs Released Thanks to FOIA

Internal emails among U.S. military officers indicate that no sailors watched Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea from the USS Carl Vinson and traditional Islamic procedures were followed during the ceremony.

The emails, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, are heavily blacked out, but are the first public disclosure of government information about the Al Qaeda leader’s death. The emails were released last week by the Defense Department.

Bin Laden was killed May 1, 2011, by a Navy SEAL team that assaulted his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

One email stamped secret and sent on May 2 by a senior Navy officer briefly describes how bin Laden’s body was washed, wrapped in a white sheet and then placed in a weighted bag.

According to another message from the Vinson’s public affairs officer, only a small group of the ship’s leadership was informed of the burial.

“Traditional procedures for Islamic burial was followed,” the May 2 email from Rear Adm. Charles Gaouette reads. “The deceased’s body was washed (ablution) then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased’s body slid into the sea.”

Although the Obama administration has pledged to be the most transparent in American history, it is keeping a tight hold on materials related to the bin Laden raid. In a response to separate requests from the AP for information about the mission, the Defense Department said in March that it could not locate any photographs or video taken during the raid or showing bin Laden’s body. It also said it could not find any images of bin Laden’s body on the Vinson…

The Pentagon also said it could not find any death certificate, autopsy report or results of DNA identification tests for bin Laden, or any pre-raid materials discussing how the government planned to dispose of bin Laden’s body if he were killed.

The Defense Department also refused to confirm or deny the existence of helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid. One of the stealth helicopters that carried the SEALs to Abbottabad crashed during the mission and its wreckage was left behind. People who lived near bin Laden’s compound took photos of the disabled chopper.

The AP is appealing the Defense Department’s decision. The CIA, which ran the bin Laden raid and has special legal authority to keep information from ever being made public, has not responded to AP’s request for records about the mission.

English: Osama bin Laden interviewed for Daily...

English: Osama bin Laden interviewed for Daily Pakistan in 1997; behind him on the wall is an AK-47 carbine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Sometimes the good guys win…

This is a heartwarming FOI tale of persistence and truth prevailing in the end. The feel-good story of the week!

After generations of having their hopes dashed by immovable bureaucrats, dismissive officials and deferential judges, advocates of open government can hardly be blamed for being skeptical about the effectiveness of freedom of information laws. As the recent Illinois decision in Rock River Times v. Rockford Public School District shows, however, sometimes those laws actually work — at least in the end.

The document at issue in Rock River Times was a June 19, 2010, letter written by Patrick Hardy, a departing high school principal, to LaVonne Sheffield, then a controversial superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, one of Illinois’ largest school districts. In the nine-page, single-spaced letter, Hardy disputed Sheffield’s version of many events and accused Sheffield of poor leadership, dishonest management and excessive drinking.

Having heard about it, The Rock River Times, a small community newspaper, requested a copy of Hardy’s letter on Aug. 26, 2010, under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. On Sept. 1, the school district — following the procedures required by the act — advised the Times and Illinois’ Public Access Counselor that it intended to deny the request….

But wait!

…On Oct. 3, 2012, the Illinois Appellate Court for the Second District unanimously affirmed the trial judge’s decision, holding that the judge had correctly applied the amendments regarding awards of attorney’s fees and finding that the penalty was appropriate. In affirming the penalty, the appellate court was particularly troubled by the district’s reliance on the purported “verbal opinion” of the public-access counselor.

“Not only did the school willfully and intentionally violate the FOIA by raising a third exemption after the first two were denied,” the court said, but it also “‘looked for a way to save face’ rather than simply admit it was wrong.”

YES! Game, set, match, openness….

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In Arizona, Exemptions du jour…

Looks like Arizona’s AG thinks he can redact stuff from public records that is unauthorized by any legal exemption in state law…

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office redacted embarrassing information in a release of hundreds of documents from an internal probe over suspected media leaks.

The Arizona Capitol Times reports (http://bit.ly/QwRnaY) that censored material included rumors of sexual affairs between Attorney General Tom Horne and a subordinate, questions about a key ally’s conduct at work and disparaging comments about the ally, who is entangled with him in alleged campaign finance violations.

Horne’s office in August released investigator Margaret Hinchey’s case file into the suspected leaks. The file included memos outlining Hinchey’s interviews with eight Attorney General’s Office employees.

Those memos were heavily censored, with large chunks of text blotted out. But when the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office released documents from a joint investigation with the FBI into alleged campaign violations by Horne and ally Kathleen Winn, the file included the memos in their entirety.

Attorneys who specialize in First Amendment issues say there are several reasons why a government agency can withhold information from public records. However, attorneys say the fact that something is potentially embarrassing to a public official isn’t one of them.

Solicitor General David Cole responded that the redactions were based on a 1984 Arizona Supreme Court ruling stating that information can be withheld on grounds of privacy, confidentiality or the best interests of the state.

“In responding to public records requests, it is the policy of this office to redact information that is known to be defamatory and false. It is also the policy of this office to redact extraneous gossip, innuendo, rumors, and hurtful remarks that have nothing to do with the legitimate functions of the agency and that can cause damage to individuals and the agency. Our practices comport with Arizona law,” Cole said in an email to the Capitol Times.

Wow. This is quite the admission. So the AG just crafts exemptions as he goes along? I hope this is not the end of this sordid tale.

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Boy Scouts’ once-secret ‘perversion files’

The secrecy here serves to remind us all of the cost of violated trust, and the damage done by insular organizations that try to keep everything in house, even when it’s clearly not working. This Los Angeles Times story was made possible because the files became part of litigation…

Only a select few in Scouting have access to the files, which are kept in 15 locked cabinets at Scout headquarters in Irving, Texas. But over the years, hundreds of the files have been admitted as evidence, usually under seal, in lawsuits by former Scouts alleging a pattern of abuse in the organization.

Many of the files will soon be made public as a result of an Oregon Supreme Court decision. The court, in response to a petition by the Oregonian, the Associated Press, the New York Times and other media organizations, ordered the release of 1,247 files from 1965 to 1984 that had been admitted as evidence, under seal, in the 2010 lawsuit.

In anticipation of the release, attorneys for the Boy Scouts conducted an informal review of 829 of the files, saying they sought to put the contents in perspective. The Scouts said the review found 175 instances in which the files prevented men who’d been banned for alleged abuse from reentering the program.

The Times analyzed an overlapping, though broader and more recent, set of files, which were submitted in a California court case in 1992. Their contents vary but often include biographicalinformation on the accused, witness statements, police reports, parent complaints, news clippings, and correspondence between local Boy Scout officials and national headquarters.

What they found is truly disturbing:

A Los Angeles Times review of more than 1,200 files dating from 1970 to 1991 found more than 125 cases across the country in which men allegedly continued to molest Scouts after the organization was first presented with detailed allegations of abusive behavior.
Predators slipped back into the program by falsifying personal information or skirting the registration process. Others were able to jump from troop to troop around the country thanks to clerical errors, computer glitches or the Scouts’ failure to check the blacklist.

In some cases, officials failed to document reports of abuse in the first place, letting offenders stay in the organization until new allegations surfaced. In others, officials documented abuse but merely suspended the accused leader or allowed him to continue working with boys while on “probation.”

In at least 50 cases, the Boy Scouts expelled suspected abusers, only to discover later that they had reentered the program and were accused of molesting again…

Judicial Watch sues Navy over bin Laden burial records

Osama bin Laden is swimming with the fishes, and Judicial Watch wants to know precisely what happened before he was dumped in the ocean…

English: Osama bin Laden interviewed for Daily...

English: Osama bin Laden interviewed for Daily Pakistan in 1997; behind him on the wall is an AK-47 carbine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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The academic FOI request blowback makes its way to the UK…

File this one under “it was bound to happen…”

A cross-party group of MPs has recommended a change in the law to prevent unpublished research data being released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The exemption should be introduced to “protect ongoing research”, the Justice Committee said in a report, Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, that was released yesterday.

Universities UK has been campaigning for such a change to the act on a number of grounds.

It has argued that researchers could use information gained from an FoI request to “scoop” data from rivals and beat them to publication, undermining the incentive for research.

It has also warned that businesses could use the act to access valuable research being conducted by commercial competitors and universities before patents can be taken out.

UUK has also raised the prospect that data could be released and then misinterpreted and misused by the public before it has been subjected to scholarly analysis and peer review.

Scotland has a specific exemption for pre-publication research.

Paul Gibbons, a Freedom of Information campaigner and author of the FOI Man blog, said that he thought there was “no real need” for a new exemption because “existing exemptions could be utilised” to protect research. Nevertheless, he added: “I can’t see it doing much harm.”

Ohio Launches New FOI Mediation Service

Citizens having problems getting public records from government agencies can now turn to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for a new forum to resolve the dispute.

Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday announced the formation of a public records mediation program.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Public Records Mediation Program, which will be overseen by lawyers in the AG’s public records unit, is aimed at resolving disputes over public records requests that are alleged to have been improperly denied or not responded to in a reasonable amount of time.

“Frankly, what we are trying to do is speed things up, save taxpayers’ money and get the people who want the information the actual information they want,” said DeWine in a phone interview. “Many times a request comes in and it’s a very broad request and the government entity is faced with denying the request or spending a ton of time and money trying to gather the records. We think a lot of these can get worked out, so that’s why we are doing it.”

Both parties must agree to enter into the mediation program and the person requesting the mediation retains the right to sue under Ohio’s open records law.

While DeWine couldn’t put a timeframe on how quickly a typical case would be resolved, he said speed would be of the essence.

“I told our team we should only do this if we can do it quickly. Our intention is to jump on this right away as most of these cases aren’t horribly complex and the legal issues aren’t horribly complex.”

A spokesman for DeWine said the goal would be to get an answer about whether both parties in a dispute would accept mediation within 10 days of the initial complaint.

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