I was in a room full of boxes, but the boxes were full of almost nothing at all.
Flipping through the stacks of files felt like some kind of joke. Many of them consisted mostly of blank pages and line after forbidding line of black marker.
I had made the trip to George Washington University's National Security Archives in Washington, DC, to view documents my father requested two decades ago under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The process took more than four frustrating years because many of his requests were simply denied. Others yielded nothing but unremarkable information or the reams of redacted papers I was now examining in disbelief.
This wasn't the kind of story I normally report on. I was deeply, personally invested in those documents, and my father, Terry Anderson, wasn't just asking the government for documentation of some random event. He was researching his own kidnapping and seven-year captivity by a terrorist group.
Dad was a journalist when he was kidnapped in 1985, three months before I was born. As Middle East bureau chief for the Associated Press, he was covering the horrifically violent civil war that raged across Lebanon at the time. One March morning, he kissed my mother goodbye in Beirut and left for a tennis game with a friend. He didn't come home for almost seven years, because a Shia Muslim militant group calling itself Islamic Jihad took him hostage.
As a result, I didn't meet my father until he was released—when I was nearly seven years old.
I only knew the sound of his voice as a child because his kidnappers would periodically release hostage videos of him, footage my mother let me watch so I could see my dad's face. I didn't understand the angry propaganda he recited. All I knew was that my father was thin, pale, and sad-looking, and I wanted to make him smile at me.
Fast forward 30 years or so. I work as a reporter myself, based out of Beirut and New York City, and am in the process of writing a book that's mostly an investigation of the circumstances surrounding my father's kidnapping, which was at the center of a web of political intrigue. Most Americans of my generation have at least heard the name "Iran-Contra," even if they don't know what it means. Basically, it was a scandal that almost took down the Reagan administration: Against their government's public policy of not negotiating with terrorists, American officials engaged in a series of covert and blatantly illegal arms-for-hostages exchanges with the Iranian government, a faction of which was funding and sponsoring my father's captors.
That's the kind of political maelstrom that swirled around his captivity: an opaque cloud of government secrets and international machinations my father tried to unravel through FOIA requests after he was released, with little success.
Want to see what FOIA requests can uncover? Read this from VICE News: Inside Washington's Quest to Bring Down Edward Snowden
And there's clearly a problem with the way the FOIA is implemented, or I wouldn't have been shaking my head at the mostly useless documents federal agencies sent in response to his request. Members of Congress seem to think so too, because they've been holding panels and hearings designed to tease out problems with FOIA and ways in which the transparency process might be improved. Last Tuesday, my father testified in one of these panels along with some investigative journalists (including Jason Leopold of VICE News) in the hope that it would lead to some concrete results, like new legislation to ensure information about our government is as accessible as it should be under FOIA.
Every investigative journalist has a FOIA horror story or an instance in which powerful interests simply refused to play ball.
"We now have a society in which large areas of government decision and action are routinely kept from the public," Dad said during his testimony. "Think of Abu Ghraib and the torture of prisoners, official and unofficial. Think of massive spying on American citizens whose phones, computers, vehicle movements and bank accounts can be monitored without their knowledge....our fear is overwhelming the system of government that has served us for 240 years. Half of the Bill of Rights is now regularly ignored. Our own government agencies violate the Constitution at will and with impunity. And we can do nothing, because we know nothing."
That's what the FOIA is supposed to address: the public's right to know how the government operates and whether it's fulfilling the values of freedom and democracy we're so quick to hold up to the rest of the world. But reporters like Sharyl Attkisson, an investigative journalist and New York Times bestselling author who also testified before the House Committee this week, argue that by employing stumbling block after bureaucratic stumbling block, government agencies are flouting FOIA in an effort to keep the American people blissfully ignorant of what's being done in their name.
"This is one of the most important tools we have as journalists, and it's something we're supposed to use to prevent what we've increasingly allowed in the past few years, which is for the powers that be to chip away at the tools we have to do our job," Attkisson says. "If we don't say something, we're complicit in the deterioration of journalism."
Every investigative journalist has a FOIA horror story or an instance in which powerful interests simply refused to play ball. My dad told me about a particularly disturbing response to one of his FOIA requests in a DC hotel room after the hearing.
"One of the first replies we got—still way after the deadline, but we did get a reply—was from the DEA," he said."They have intelligence people overseas in American embassies, and Lebanon is a drug country... They said, 'We can't give you the information. It would violate the privacy of the people you've named.'"
"But they're not American citizens," I pointed out.
"Right, and the law doesn't apply to non-American citizens, but that's what they said anyway. However, they did tell me, 'If you can get a signed, notarized affidavit and permission from these people, we can give you the files.' They wanted me to go back to my kidnappers and have them sign an attested statement saying that I could look at their files. Of course, the government had about a million dollars on each of their heads at the time, so I don't think it would have been practical for me to find them."
What could possibly prompt one of our government agencies to make such a ridiculous request—that my dad hit up his kidnappers for permission—with a straight face? Could it be that they were intentionally trying to mask flawed policies and institutional fuckups like Iran-Contra? To be fair, my own research on Dad's kidnapping indicates that most of the people involved in negotiating his release sincerely wanted to see him freed. But 30 years later, doesn't his daughter have the right to know what government officials did to free him? Doesn't an American deserve to know what efforts were made on his behalf as he sat blindfolded and chained to a radiator in a Beirut basement?
Leah McGrath Goodman is an investigative journalist and finance editor for Newsweek who also testified before the House. She thinks this kind of runaround by government agencies is purposeful, and that current FOIA procedures are designed to prevent the disclosure of information that might prove damaging to the people in charge.
"What we're seeing right now are rules that have been fudged and flouted so much that even where they specifically say, 'You have to give notice before 20 days,' they're completely ignoring it," Goodman tells me. "They have no incentive to provide results, since the money funding their time is coming from the taxpayers, so why wouldn't they go through this endless process? I think the way it's set up now is probably one of the worst possible ways. So could they revisit this so that it's set up in a way that doesn't encourage this kind of behavior? I hope so."
She argues that these agencies are so concerned with trying to find exemptions and obstacles to a FOIA request that they often miss opportunities to respond to allegations made against them. In other words, extra secrecy just makes the government look even more shady.
"You're trying to be a fair arbiter between multiple parties when other people are talking to you and this agency is giving you the runaround," Goodman says. "They don't want to share that information, but the public needs to know."
To their credit, when I asked for comment on the concerns put forth by journalists during the hearings, the Department of Justice put me in touch with Melanie Pustay, who heads their Office of Information Policy. The first thing Pustay tells me is that FOIA officials simply need more money to help speed responses to requests.
"Having a steady source of funding for FOIA and not having a government shutdown and all these fiscal challenges would go a long way to improve the FOIA program overall," she says by way of explanation. "But I think taking into account the exempting fiscal times we live in, agencies have managed to do a lot of things well. The areas where I think we have potential to have further improvement—well I think agencies want, and we continue to encourage, greater use of technology. Because any time you can replace a manual process with an electronic one, you can do things faster. It helps the processing time for individual requests, obviously, but it can also reduce staffing, which in turn can help in these fiscal times. So increasing the use of technology in FOIA is something that's universally desired by agencies."
When I point out that some critics argue federal agencies don't share information because they would prefer to keep secrets, Pustay responds with kindly incredulity.
"I was really perplexed by that characterization of how FOIA administration works, because it's really belied by the statistics," she says. "They show that 91 percent of requests are being released in full or in part, and only 9 percent of requests are withheld in full."
"Where can I find these statistics?" I ask.
"All these statistics are in annual agency FOIA reports, which are all available on FOIA.gov, and we do a summary of those that's available on our website. So I really think the culture is one of openness. At the same time, of course there's information that gets withheld, so every time somebody holds up a piece of paper that has redactions on it, that's obviously going to happen with FOIA, because it reflects a balance of the right of the public to know what the government is doing and the need of certain agencies to protect information. The most commonly cited reason for withholding information is personal privacy. Over 50 percent of the redactions are made to protect the privacy of individuals who are in government files. Most people understand the need to protect personal privacy."
I seize the opportunity. "I agree that protecting personal privacy is super important, but an agency denied one of my dad's FOIA requests by suggesting it would violate the personal privacy of his kidnappers."
"Oh no," Pustay exclaims. "I think maybe there's sometimes a misunderstanding of why a case has been delayed, and certainly there are going to be examples where you say, 'Oh my goodness, I wish the agency would have done it a little bit differently.' But there are many success stories in FOIA. I see references from requests made under FOIA nearly every single day when I read the paper, and I know then that's what it's all about... We try our best to find lots of different ways to guide agencies on how to implement the process better, because the better it's implemented, the better for the public."
Well, sure. But some say more guidance is needed. Malcolm Byrne, deputy director and director of research for GWU's National Security Archive, was one of the people who assisted my father during his four-year FOIA saga, and says that process was almost as frustrating to watch as it is to experience firsthand.
"The way we process these requests is usually for average citizens with no personal stake in the request or the history," says Byrne. "In your dad's case, he had a very personal right to see this information, so it was even more galling to see him face some of the same excesses and in some cases abuses that average requesters often face... Those were records that not only meant a lot to him, so he could understand what happened to him, but they were extremely important for the rest of us to know. How does our government confront terrorism? How do we deal with hostage-taking? How much do we know about the forces involved, and how ultimately effective are we in dealing with these matters? Those were all hugely important questions, and it was doubly outrageous to see someone in his position who had been victimized by those forces be then dismissed by the agencies."
What is lost when journalists and citizens are prevented from obtaining information that could help us learn from our mistakes and change the way we face threats like terrorism? That's a question that's proven incredibly urgent in recent years as we struggle to cope with extremist groups like the Islamic State, who have taken kidnappings and acts of terror to a whole new level of brutality. So why did learning about his own kidnapping become such a Sisyphean task for my father, and why do so many people feel that FOIA has lost its purpose?
"Make no mistake, federal officials, politicians and bureaucrats are violating the law, just like any other criminals," Attkisson says. "One of the hallmarks of a society that's breaking down is when its leaders exempt themselves from the laws that the public is required to follow, and I think that's happening more and more in our society.
"Journalists should be writing about it and putting pressure on them to obey the law," she continues, with steel in her voice. "The only stories the government wants to give you because they like you are propaganda, not the ones about misconduct and flouting of our values. When journalists tell the government, 'We don't work for you,' we might not get their stories, but we'll get better stories, real stories."
So this is my message to our government: I want the real story of what happened to my father. I want to know if and when I decide to file a FOIA request, that it will be answered in a timely fashion, with full disclosure. I want it because it's my story as well, and it belongs to me, to my family, not to reluctant bureaucrats. Give me my story, and give America its story too, because it belongs to us, and we deserve to have it.
Follow Sulome Anderson on Twitter.