NBC News 4 reporter Scott MacFarlane, researching a story about the Washington Navy Yard shootings of September 2013, sent some FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to the Navy.
He asked for memos sent by some officials, and for any emails they sent between 8:00 and 9:30 am on the day of the shooting. He also asked for photos of Building 197, where the shootings took place.
The Navy has a FOIA office, and they gave serious attention to MacFarlane’s requests. Serious attention on how to evade them, how to respond as unhelpfully as possible, and how to make them too expensive to pursue.
We know this not just because we’re cynical. This week the Navy, in the person of public liaison official Robin Patterson, who works in their FOIA office, accidentally sent the memo about how to mess with MacFarlane to MacFarlane himself.
Ooh, ooh, ooh.
MacFarlane tweeted a screenshot of the memo. In it Patterson discusses strategy with an underling. In the matter of photos, for example, she suggests that the first line to take might be that “photos are prohibited” at the Navy Yard except for official photos of official events. (So there are no photos! How do you like that, MacFarlane?) And maybe those official photos get used for specific purposes and then “routinely destroyed.” (So they don’t exist either! Yeah.)
With any luck, the Public Affairs office won’t maintain a photo library, which might have pictures MacFarlane wants. But if they do have a photo library and it does actually contain photos, they are probably in very specific folders that pertain to specific events – so MacFarlane’s request is “too broad”! (Ha HA!)
Once the underling finds out what the situation is, “Josh can help with crafting the language for ‘fishing expedition’, or request to[o] broad.” (Fishing expedition! Oh, snap!)
As for the memos, Patterson likes the idea that it would be “very costly” to look for them. “Recommend that you provide the requester with an estimate… This may encourage the requester to ‘narrow the scope’.” She again suggests calling it a fishing expedition, and sneers “just because they are media doesn’t mean that the memos would shed light on specific government activities.”
Not to mention that the Department of Justice “encourages all agencies to fully comply with both the letter and the spirit of the FOIA.”
Patterson had some lively strategy going, until she torpedoed it by sending it to the enemy. (I toyed with the idea that her inner Snowden sent this to MacFarlane, but no.) I feel forced to resort to Navy slang to describe this. This might be an example of what they call Three Steel Balls. “Put a sailor in a room with three steel balls. Come back an hour later: one will be missing, one will be broken, and one will be in his pocket.”
Let’s see. One steel ball will have been routinely destroyed, one will be too vague to detect, and one will be too expensive to find. Go fish.
Or maybe it’s a monkey and football situation. “A monkey trying to fuck a football, and the football is winning.”
Heads will roll. Planks will be walked. An apology is called for.
The Navy tweeted:
The #USNavy remains committed to transparency & responding to FOIA requests in a timely and professional manner.
#USNavy regrets the content of an internal email sent to @nbcwashington
#USNavy supports the Freedom of Information Act & its vital role in providing transparency to the American public
No good. The first and third tweets are boilerplate statements about the Navy’s goodness, straight from the mouth of A.J. Squared Away. And the second uses the fatal word “regrets.”
Of course the Navy regrets it. To regret is to be sad about, but without taking responsibility.
This is a problem with the word “regret” in apologies. This is why when someone is angry about something you did, and you say you regret what you did, THEY ARE STILL ANGRY.
And so we suspect the Navy is not sorry they schemed to deny a reporter access to facts. They are not sorry they tried to finagle the Freedom of Information Act. They are only sorry it became public.
According to NBC, a Navy administrator, Steve Muck, also emailed MacFarlane asking him to “accept [his] apologies.” MacFarlane tweeted:
USNavy has apologized to @MacFarlaneNews for FOIA response re: Navy Yard Building 197 materials
I hope there was more to it than “accept my apologies.”
It’s often said that the coverup is worse than the crime. It often attracts more attention than the crime. It’s the Navy’s fault that now I’m really, really curious about Building 197.