In a brazen failure to comply with a public records law enacted to keep government accountable, a federal agency waited 16 years to respond to a Judicial Watch request for information related to a controversial intelligence operation. Back in 2005 Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Defense (DOD) for records related to Able Danger, a secret military unit led by the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) that reportedly identified some of the 9/11 hijackers before the 2001 attacks. The request also asks for U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and/or counterterrorism projects utilizing data mining software techniques to search open-source records in the public domain.
Last week, 16 years and a month later, USSOCOM’s FOIA team contacted Judicial Watch to say it reviewed its current backlog of cases and identified the 2005 inquiry as one of USSOCOM’s oldest pending requests. “Before we continue to process your request, our office would like to confirm that you are, in fact, still interested in the subject matter of your request,” the agency writes in an electronic mail to Judicial Watch. “If so, we will continue to process; if you are no longer interested, please consider withdrawing your request.” The email ends with regards and is signed by USSOCOM FOIA Team. Judicial Watch quickly responded that it is very much interested in the subject matter and asks the SOCOM FOIA team to keep the case file open and continue to process the government records that we are owed. “Please provide a projected date of when (after 16+ years) you anticipate accomplishing your mission,” Judicial Watch writes to the agency. USSOCOM’s replies by thanking Judicial Watch for its “continued patience” and writes that it anticipates completion of the request in “approximately 18-24 months,” adding that “it could more or less.”
After more than a decade and a half it is inconceivable for the government to take another two years—possibly more—to provide the information. Under FOIA, enacted in 1967 to ensure citizens are informed about their government, all federal agencies are required to respond to records requests within 20 business days. The information surrounding Able Danger without question concerns the operations and activities of government covered under FOIA, namely open-source data mining efforts and the assertion that 9/11 terrorists had been identified by U.S. intelligence agencies a year before the 2001 attacks. In 2005 Army intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer said his Able Danger unit identified four of the 9/11 hijackers as Al Qaeda operatives well before the 2001 attacks. Months later, a congressman revealed the secret military unit singled out 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta 13 different times and pinpointed a problem in Yemen two weeks before the 2000 bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden that killed 17 sailors. A 2006 Senate probe found no evidence to support that Able Danger identified Atta before 9/11. The USSOCOM records Judicial Watch is working to obtain could help uncover the truth.
The stonewalling of this vital information by the government is hardly an isolated case. Judicial Watch regularly must sue the government in federal court to get public records that should not require litigation to obtain. The USSOCOM case, however, breaks the previous record for the time a federal agency has taken to respond to a Judicial Watch FOIA request. In December 2001 Judicial Watch asked the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for information concerning Osama Bin Laden being expelled from Sudan in May 1996 and relocating to Afghanistan. Fourteen years and six months later the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), a component of the DOD, finally responded to the FOIA request, writing in a letter that the records exist but “all substantive portions of the five documents (36 pages) must be withheld in full from disclosure pursuant to the FOIA.” Like in the most recent snub involving Able Danger, the government expresses regret for taking so long—nearly 15 years—and a declassification officer apologizes for the delay in replying to Judicial Watch’s request, explaining that to properly respond, it was necessary to consult with other agencies and offices.