After 2 years, a public records request shows signs of life

On July 22, I received a voicemail with news a distant, seemingly off-grid traveler had shown up in Virginia and was being tended to by a gentleman who'd pledged to handle the wayward missive with care.

"My name is Antoine Harris," the voice on the phone said. "I'm calling from the National Guard Bureau Office of Information and Privacy. I'm looking at a FOIA request you submitted Aug. 1, 2014, looking for 15-6 investigations. I was just assigned this case. I was just wondering and calling to see if you were still interested in receiving these records?"

Let that sink in a moment. A public records request was finally being dealt with 720 days after I made the request — a request the National Guard initially had 20 days to respond to.

In fairness, the Alaska National Guard did meet the initial timeline. The local Guard office was responsive but said it had to send records to the national office for review and redaction.

The national office designated the request as complex because records were being held elsewhere, presumably a reference to the same batch of material the Alaska office had already assembled.

FOIAs, or requests submitted under the Freedom of Information Act, are an important tool for journalists. They allow reporters, and any member of the public, to request and receive information about government, including the military. It's a foundation for transparency and knowing what's what without the filter of someone else's interpretation.

I'd made the request for the Alaska National Guard's investigative files, known as AR 15-6s, nomenclature for Army Regulation 15-6, during the controversy about whether the Alaska National Guard was properly handling sexual assault cases. Also at issue was whether Alaska's governor at the time, Sean Parnell, had been adequately informed of the complaints and was using his authority to do something about it.

Some AR 15-6s obtained by the Alaska press indicated there were known issues within the Guard about sexually inappropriate behavior by some of its members. Public frustration grew about whether cases were referred to civilian police, and if not, why not? And the frustration only grew with the lingering unanswered questions.

Many of the military investigations were handled administratively as personnel matters, shrouding the path from accusation to outcome in a secretive process.

In making the request for AR 15-6s, I'd sought an expanded view. I didn't just want access to investigations of which we were already aware. I wanted a look at all investigations over a period of years.

What kinds of problems were our Guard members encountering? How frequently? Were alleged sexual misconduct and sexual assault dominant issues? Were there other, minor incidents? Worse ones? How often did initiated investigations uphold the accusations? How many proved unmerited?

We needed the long view.

I had asked for but was denied an expedited request. In a continued effort to get at the investigative reports I even went to the top "fixer" sent in to clean up after a federal report, released in early September 2014, documented numerous problems within the Alaska National Guard.

On Oct. 10 2014, that man — Brig. Gen. Jon K. Mott — let me know that my request, which had started at the local office here in Alaska, was being logged in at the national office.

Ten days later I received a letter from the National Guard Bureau's FOIA office that they had my request. It had been added to the "complex queue" and was assigned position #170. They estimated they might fulfill my request by Sept. 30, 2015 — almost a full year away.

"Unfortunately the past furloughs of employees, government shutdown, and available resources for the FOIA program have resulted in lengthy delays; however, the FOIA office makes every effort to process all requests as expeditiously as possible," the Guard Bureau's staff explained in a response to Mott.

I told Harris, who left me that voicemail earlier this month, that I was still interested in the records. He indicated he'd be handling the responsive file — which was on his desk as we spoke last week — as soon as possible.

But what others down the line will do with that file — more analysis, more review — is anybody's guess.

It seems worth noting that this call about my long-delayed request for information came in one month after President Barack Obama signed the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 into law, nearly 50 years after the Freedom of Information Act became law.

The FOIA is a powerful tool to keep government transparent. But it's also often lost amid bureaucratic sluggishness.

Records requested Aug. 1, 2014, and still not produced after two years is too long, no matter the rationale.

"In our democracy, the FOIA serves as a vital tool to keep citizens informed about the operations of their government," the Department of Justice wrote about the passage of the amendments to the Act on its website.

We'll see.

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