We’re in the midst of a public records request deluge like no other. Journalists, partisans, and public advocates are inundating government agencies with a seemingly unprecedented amount of demands that government documents be made public -- everything from FBI memos to scientific data to police disciplinary records. These requesters lean on a variety of “sunshine” laws to get information out in the open, primarily the federal Freedom of Information Act and its many state analogs.
Just how many public requests are being made? Let’s look at one of the leaders in this space, MuckRock, a nonprofit organization that maintains an online database of government docs. MuckRock’s requests have increased rapidly in recent years and on Wednesday the group announced that its users had completed their 10,000th public records request.
Such requests often deal with the weightiest issues of the day, topics like national security, civil liberties, and global warming. Getting access to the can involve significant document review and production and occasionally litigation. But when it comes to public records requests it’s not all paperwork, frustration, and redactions. Sometimes the record requests, and the records produced, aren’t just newsworthy, they’re quizzical, or humorous, or just downright cute. These three definitely check those boxes.
Some People Take Model Planes Very Seriously
If your childhood pastimes involved assembling model airplanes, you probably weren’t too concerned with their accuracy. The joy was more in putting something together, painting it metallic gray, then running around making “pew pew” sounds as you pretended to fight off enemy aircraft, Red Baron-style.
But the company that designed that model? They probably cared about accuracy -- maybe even enough to FOIA request the designs of actual aircraft. Last week, Muckrock highlighted a 1981 FOIA request by the Testor Corporation, which makes model kits, paints, glues, and related crafting products. Testor sought information (“adorably” and “with palpable excitement,” according to Muckrock) on the design of Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird aircraft.
Lockheed declined to provide the plans directly, instead writing that “the United States Air Force should act as coordinator and screen such requests in view of the sensitive nature and the military value.” Producing the SR-71’s drawings would take 40 hours and cost $1800, Lockheed estimated, or a bit over $4700 dollars today.
Freedom of Information isn’t always free, it turns out, but when it comes to crafting the perfect childhood memories, the extra effort might be worth it.
When Internet Dating Has No Love FOIA
It’s not easy to find someone to love, though plenty of websites are willing to offer a helping hand. eHarmony, JDate, and Farmers Only all sell the possibility of a heart-felt connection (or at least some human contact) to lonely folks on the internet. Unfortunately, online dating services don’t always guarantee real-world dating success. And that pisses some people off.
Plenty of those disgruntled lovers have, in turn, filed complaints to the FTC -- complaints that are then available through public records requests. In 2013, Inkoo Kang filed three FOIA requests with the FTC to unearth those very complaints. His requests revealed 2300 complaints, the vast majority of them against the dating site Match.com.
Some of the complaints seemed legitimate. Many consumers reported grifters that sought to bilk them out of money, a sort of 419 Scam for daters. According to Kang:
About half of all claims involve allegations of what the FTC calls “romance scams,” in which online con artists swindled hundreds or thousands of dollars from naive lonelyhearts. In some cases, scammers sent flowers or a fruit basket as a sign of affection before asking for help paying for a flight to the United States or a cancer-stricken family member’s medical bills. However, one hustler, perhaps recalling the old adage that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” sent one Match.com customer “wings from Papa Johns,” according to one complaint. Most of the romance scammers were reportedly from Nigeria.
Then there's concerned parent who set up an account for her son, apparently to no avail. After six months, she (or her son) was done with online dating. The mom didn’t write the FTC to complain about her child’s inability to land a mate, though. Her complaint was over being hit with an automatic renewal charge.
Others complaints were a little, well, less legitimate. One user lamented that dating websites were “exploiting the widespread sexual pathology in this country.” In addition to banning dating websites from advertising on TV and radio, the consumer requests that the FTC “go online looking for the phrase sex therapists” and then “make available to the public the best scientific advice on how to deal with the pandemic problem of sexual pathology.” The consumer left no contact information.
The best complaint unearthed by these FOIA requests, though, might be this one (sic throughout):
OUT OF THOUSANDS OF LESBIANS ACROSS THE UNITED STATES NOBODY SENT ME A HELLO OR WONK. I WANT MY MONEY REFUNDED FOR POSTING MY PHOTOS UPSIDE DOWN
CIA Santa Claus
Our final public record of note involves the CIA. The CIA probably isn’t the funniest government agency. It’s certainly not the cutest. After all, America’s foreign intelligence service is more likely to bring to mind images of international spies and clandestined coups than, say, Santa and his elves. But details of international intrigue and espionage aren’t the only secrets the CIA keeps. It also has a secret Santa.
Released agency correspondence from 1977 includes the CIA’s version of “Santa Claus’s Annual Report.” The report is literally sent from “CIA Santa Claus.” (CIA Santa appears to be an honorific title -- the report author’s actual name is present, but redacted.) The report details CIA’s annual Christmas Charity Program, which in 1976 gathered up over 1920 pounds of clothing, 1200 pounds of food, and over 2000 toys for donation to local charities.
As the report notes, “Santa Claus was again impressed with the generosity of the Agency employees.” But, this being the CIA, Santa was also intent on keeping tabs on who was naughty and nice: “As a proponent of MBO,” or Management By Objectives, “Santa Claus attempted to record who gave what to whom,” the report notes.
It’s almost enough to melt a spy’s jaded little heart.
These holly jolly public records weren’t released because of FOIA or other public records laws, however. Instead, they were “requested” by the president, via an executive order issued by President Clinton in 1995. That order, and a second, amending EO issued by President Obama, requires that agencies review and declassify millions of documents once they are 25 years old or older.
Less adorable that the CIA Christmas Drive is the treatment of a December, 1974 Weekly Situation Report on International Terrorism -- and not just because terrorism isn’t cute. The documents highlight some of the dubious and inconsistent redactions agencies make when releasing information to the public. Situation Reports were produced for the Nixon administration following the Black September attacks on Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. The report at issue here, according to the George Washington University’s National Security Archive, was released to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in 1997 and made public once again in 1999, when it was made part of the CIA’s CREST archive.
In the 1999 version redacted an entire page on “Terrorist Plans and Threats: Worldwide.” The 1997 version provided to the Ford Library did not. So, what was blocked out in ‘99 that was made public in ‘97? A joke about a potential attack on the “Government of the North Pole,” planned for Christmas Eve:
A new organization of uncertain makeup, using the name “Group of the Martyr Ebenezer Scrooge,” plans to sabotage the annual courier flights of the Government of the North Pole. Prime Minister and Chief Courier S. Claus has been notified and security precautions are being coordinated worldwide by the CCCT Working Group.