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Too Many Secrets: The Fight to Make the US Government More Accountable in 2015

The Obama administration calls itself the most transparent in history — yet remains extraordinarily secretive. Still, this year saw several victories in the fight for greater government transparency.

by Jason Leopold
Dec 23 2015, 5:50pm

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in September. (Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

It's been yet another year of intense government secrecy in the US.

On issues as wide-ranging as Guantanamo and net neutrality, to the federal government's response to the Ebola outbreak, to the costs of operating black-site CIA prisons across Europe, US government agencies again refused to err on the side of disclosure in 2015 — as they were instructed to by then–Attorney General Eric Holder back in 2009 — and instead chose to conceal information. In doing so, the agencies cited threats to national security, privacy, the so-called "deliberative process," and other exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

And despite it all, the Obama administration continued to proclaim that it is "the most transparent administration in history."

There were victories in the fight for transparency this year, however. It was a VICE News FOIA lawsuit that forced the State Department to publicly release Hillary Clinton's emails, arguably the most high-profile release of documents in 2015.

Related: 2015 — The Year in Review

When we sued the State Department on January 25 for Clinton's emails, the scandal over her exclusive use of a private email account while she was Secretary of State had not yet unfolded. Our decision to litigate was based instead on the fact that she was set to become the Democratic presidential frontrunner in 2016, and we wanted to gain insight into the way she performed as the nation's top diplomat.

The monthly disclosures have contained, for instance, revelatory details about Clinton's stance on the controversial 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan and her work in helping to secure the release of high-profile Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, have also helped to shed much-needed light on the State Department's disastrous FOIA operations that caused the years-long delay of documents.

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Earlier this year, an old question resurfaced: whether the force-feeding of Guantanamo detainees was a violation of international law and medical ethics. The military refused to say, but we forced the release of the military legal document that for the first time acknowledged that the US believed force-feeding a mentally competent person is "never acceptable." The release of this document also played a role in saving the career of a Navy nurse who refused to force-feed detainees for those very reasons and faced the possibility of an "other than honorable" discharge.

Over the summer, in response to another FOIA lawsuit, the CIA declassified and turned over to VICE News hundreds of pages of documents revolving around claims that agency personnel had allegedly hacked and spied on computers used by Senate Intelligence Committee staffers who were probing the efficacy of the CIA's torture program.

The highly charged claims led to a near constitutional crisis between the Senate and the CIA, and prompted preliminary investigations by the Justice Department and the CIA's internal watchdog.

It also resulted in one of our favorite FOIA scores of the year. Buried in the documents the CIA released to VICE News was an unsigned apology letter CIA Director John Brennan wrote to senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss, then the chairwoman and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, after an internal review found that their claims were true — the CIA did spy on Senate staffers.

And as we reported, the catalyst behind the spying was a Google search.

Brennan never actually sent Feinstein and Chambliss that apology letter — the CIA mistakenly turned it over to us. A CIA spokesman requested that VICE News refrain from posting the letter not because it would endanger national security, but because it was embarrassing. We declined.

Other classified CIA documents we successfully forced the agency to release in response to our FOIA requests revealed the identity of the secret CIA contractor that was paid $40 million by taxpayers to review and redact torture documents; the secret memo that former CIA Director Leon Panetta sent members of Congress that said the CIA was quitting the torture business; and memos that contained long sought-after details about whether the CIA had forced "mind-altering drugs" on detainees who were held at top secret black site prisons.

In June, we also helped shine a light on the genesis of a 2-year-old claim that had been published dozens of times in news reports and attributed to anonymous sources: that former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden allegedly stole 1.7 million highly classified files about surveillance and other programs.

The Defense Intelligence Agency, which had been conducting a damage assessment related to Snowden's leaks and its impact on military operations and plans, turned over dozens of documents to VICE News that showed the 1.7 million claim was contained in a set of talking points provided to congressional oversight and appropriations committees. Some committee members then leaked the talking points to a handful of reporters in an effort to discredit and damage Snowden "in the media and the court of public opinion," the documents revealed.

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On the civil liberties front, documents we obtained from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in the immediate aftermath of the police custody death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore revealed that DHS had been monitoring a prominent Black Lives Matter activist named Deray McKesson, who DHS referred to as a "professional protester," about protests in Baltimore in response to Gray's death. These documents showed that DHS feared the protests would become "catastrophic," and, in response, the agency deployed 400 federal officers to Baltimore to assist local law enforcement with the crackdown.

Additionally, hundreds of other DHS documents shed light on the federal government's response to protests around the country, sparked by the killings of several unarmed black men by police officers. Notably, the documents revealed that as a grand jury deliberated the fate of Darren Wilson — the white Ferguson, Missouri police officer who killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August 2014 — DHS was working on a plan to "plug" federal officers into the protests in the city to "perform surveillance" and "collect intelligence in the crowd," in what could arguably be seen as a violation of the protesters' First Amendment rights.

We obtained two highly sought-after CIA documents pertaining to the controversial movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. These top secret CIA documents revealed potential ethical violations involving a dozen or so CIA officers who cooperated with filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal; during their months-long effort to obtain secret details about the raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound, the pair feted agency officers with gifts and meals in Washington, DC and Los Angeles. The documents also contained startling new details about how the CIA approved portions of Boal's script, and how former CIA Director Leon Panetta leaked classified details about the raid to Boal during a celebration at CIA headquarters commemorating the death of bin Laden. 

Earlier this year, Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was back in the news. He faced the prospect of trial by court-martial for leaving his outpost in Afghanistan in June 2009, a month after he was deployed. Numerous members of Congress and presidential candidates politicized his case, with some calling for his execution, asserting he was a traitor. Lawmakers claimed they had always been opposed to a White House plan to swap five Taliban members held at Guantanamo in exchange for Berghdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and held captive for five years. 

The Obama administration suggested that officials had always kept Congress in the loop about its plans. But not so, according to documents we forced the State Department to release about its years-long dealings with Congress concerning Bergdahl. The Obama administration knew as far back as 2012 that numerous lawmakers had vehemently opposed a plan to swap the so-called Taliban Five for Bergdahl before a Special Forces unit executed the secret operation last year.

In nearly a dozen classified and unclassified briefings the State and Defense departments gave to individual lawmakers and congressional committees beginning in November 2011 about possible negotiations with the Taliban, "many members" — notably Senator Saxby Chambliss, then the ranking minority member on the Senate Intelligence Committee — "expressed opposition to any consideration of a deal for Bergdahl and the five Taliban."

Obama administration officials assured Chambliss and other lawmakers that they would not take any action without first consulting Congress. But they failed to keep their word.

Charges against Bergdahl were just referred for trial by a general court-martial.

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We also continued to reveal new details about the FBI's criminal case against Samir Khan, a US citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 along with Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical preacher who the US government said was an operational leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, commonly referred to as AQAP. It was one of the Obama administration's most controversial and secretive counterterrorism operations.

Our seven-part series (with additional installments scheduled for next year) on Khan, a radical blogger who was one of the founding editors of al Qaeda's official Internet magazine, Inspire, is based on tens of thousands of FBI documents the bureau has been releasing to VICE News on a quarterly basis. The FBI had initially refused to turn over these records, citing national security concerns, but relented after our formal appeals.

The documents we obtained this year showed that the FBI discussed an "end game" for Khan prior to his death; that the bureau consulted the book The True Believer to gain insight into Khan's mental state; and that the bureau had considered recruiting the North Carolina resident as an informant, believing that Khan would prove to be "more beneficial" to the US government from an intelligence standpoint.

Related: 'Primary Sources,' the VICE News FOIA blog

That's just a sampling of the 500-plus FOIA requests and half-dozen FOIA lawsuits VICE News filed in 2015. In all, VICE News' transparency work resulted in the release of more than 20,000 pages of previously secret government documents. Next year, FOIA will celebrate its golden anniversary. And the "most transparent administration in history" already appears to be on track to make 2016 into its most secretive year on record.

Although prying loose government documents under FOIA has, at times, proven to be an arduous task, VICE News had several notable successes this year among the 500-plus FOIA requests and half-dozen FOIA lawsuits we filed. This is thanks in no small part to FOIA attorneys Jeffrey Light and Ryan James, who aggressively battled the government on our behalf.

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold