Transparency: TSA takes 4 years to respond to one simple FOIA request

Apparently the only connection between the TSA and transparency are all of our images as we pass through their scanners at the airport.  A big hat tip to Josh Gerstein at Politico for highlighting this account late last week by Michael Grabell at ProPublica:

In my first week at ProPublica in June 2008, I filed a public records request for the agency’s complaint files. Such records can provide good fodder for investigations.

For example, amid the brouhaha over the agency’s introduction of intensive full-body pat-downs in 2004, I requested complaints and discovered an untold story of the pain and humiliation suffered by rape victims and breast cancer survivors. In one incident that I found from that request — while I was a reporter at the Dallas Morning News — a woman complained that a screener asked her to remove her prosthetic breast to be swabbed for explosives.

When I made a similar FOIA request in 2008, I assumed the TSA would respond in a few months. Government agencies have about a month to respond to public record requests, though they often take longer. I figured even if their response took months, I’d be able to repeat it regularly to get a timely, inside look as to what passengers were complaining about and find out about incidents that required some more digging.

Boy, was I wrong.

As you’ve probably ascertained, the records Grabell requested finally arrived last week. The TSA blamed the delay on the volume of information requested, but after four years of foot-dragging, the records they delivered amounted to only 87 pages. The highlight has to be a complaint from an elderly woman in a wheelchair that she was made to walk through security – and subsequently fell – but click on over to ProPublica to read more.

But the real story is the delay itself, bringing to mind a government directive the President signed in his very first week in office (emphasis added):

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.

Officially this was a presidential “memorandum”, not a directive, with the difference apparently being that a very large wink is implicit along with a memorandum. Because this Administration has really made a mockery of the sentiments expressed in the paragraph above, from Fast and Furious to the latest scandals with the GSA and the Secret Service. The essence of all three of these scandals was a decision by government officials to put their own needs ahead of the public interest, if for no other reason than to protect the guy at the very top of the org chart. This has been a problem with every White House I can remember, but I don’t recall any other recent presidents having the audacity to claim they are somehow different – the most transparent Administration in history, in fact – when stories like this appear with such regularity.

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