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Posted on Fri, Feb 12, 2010 : 6 a.m.

FOIA Friday: examples of what kinds of things can be obtained by FOIA

By Edward Vielmetti

News organizations and advocacy groups around the nation use Freedom of Information Act requests to do investigative work. In many cases, the time span between the original request and the final response is very long, especially if the agency responding to the request fights it in court.

Here are some recent news stories from around the country that were based on FOIA requests, including thousands of new 9/11 photos requested by an alert ABC News reporter who was reading the Federal Register. I've also included a status report on some local FOIA efforts regarding the Seventh and Washington street intersection, the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, and a proposed HAWK pedestrian signal at Huron and Third streets.

New 9/11 photos from NIST

ABC News asked NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, for photos which it had collected in the process of investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

In August 2009, NIST printed a notice in the Federal Register asking photographers for permission to make public images collected during the agency's investigation into the towers' collapse. An ABC journalist read this and made a FOIA request; six months later, they received 2,779 pictures on nine CDs. ABC has published 13 of the photos in its gallery NYPD World Trade Center 9/11 Photos.

The NIST FOIA page has more details on how to make requests of that agency.

Electronic Privacy Information Center

The Electronic Privacy Information Center is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1994 "to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, the First Amendment, and constitutional values," especially in cases where technology has made changes to meaning of regulations and procedures originally developed for a paper-based world.

EPIC's recent FOIA efforts have been aimed at records from the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Government Services Agency and the Department of Defense on issues like airport body scanners, network surveillance, and Google's relationship with the NSA.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

A second public interest group that regularly addresses electronic privacy and security issues is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Its FOIA Litigation for Accountable Government proejct. It "aims to expose the government's expanding use of new technologies that invade Americans' privacy" through FOIA requests and lawsuits.

In its most recent case, a federal appeals court rejected a government claim of "lobbyist privacy" to hide the identities of telecommunications company lobbyists who pressued the U.S. Congress to grant immunity for their participation in electronic surveillance efforts. The court noted "there is a clear public interest in public knowledge of the methods through which well-connected corporate lobbyists wield their influence." More information about this case is collected by the EFF along with records they have received by FOIA.

FOIA requests in progress

Each week I try to use this post to track some FOIA requests I have in progress, as a way to make sure that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

I asked the City of Ann Arbor for copies of minutes and agendas and packets for the Historic District Commission, after its latest board packet did not include meeting minutes for the previous meeting. I have not heard a response back yet, but the HDC minutes archive now includes six months worth of official minutes that had not been previously published. That commission approves all requests for new construction and remodeling in Ann Arbor's historic areas; anyone looking to preserve their neighborhood through designation as a historic district should have their eyes wide open to what that means for the process of fixing a rotten porch railing or replacing an inefficient window.

Last week's Ann Arbor Police Department records request for accident information regarding the corner of Seventh and Washington Streets yielded $0.10 worth of records, listing 10 separate incidents where police responded to a call. There are no open cases in that list, but at least some of these records have accident reports; I've asked for the UD-10 forms for each of them so that I can see what the details were for each.

A request to the City of Ann Arbor for additional information regarding Seventh and Washington, outlined in last week's FOIA Friday, came back with a notification that the documents would be made available in two weeks; I should expect a response on May 1.

I've also asked for records from the City of Ann Arbor, MDOT, the Downtown Development Authority and the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) regarding the proposed HAWK pedestrian-activated signal at Third and Huron near the Ann Arbor YMCA. WATS called me back promptly for clarification after getting the request; the other agencies are still within their allotted time to make a response.

Edward Vielmetti is learning how to read accident report forms for Reach him at 734-330-2465.