Saturday, October 6, 2012

USAID: No democracy without secrecy

The U.S. Agency for International Development on Friday denied my appeal of its refusal to release information about a Freedom House program called "Alternative Methods to Increase Information and Assistance in Cuba."
I filed my first appeal to a USAID FOIA denial more than a year ago - 423 days, to be exact. This is the first response I've gotten back to one of my appeals, listed here.
In this case, I argued that USAID's use of an exemption protecting trade secrets and commercial or financial information was unwarranted and went "against the spirit of an open and honest government."
In response, FOIA Appeals Officer John Peevey wrote: (download Oct. 5 letter):
The submitter, Freedom House, provided statements of how they took care to keep details of the activities of the Alternative Methods to Increase Information and Assistance in Cuba Program confidential for two reasons: (1) for the safety of the participants and (2) to protect proprietary knowledge. Freedom House considers the strategies they developed to be trade knowledge in promoting human rights and those strategies are highly specialized and proprietary in nature. To release such information would compromise the confidentiality of the program, its content, and participants.
I wrote about this FOIA case on Sept. 8 (See "$5 million money trail ends at USAID"). I complained that USAID had withheld Freedom House's entire proposal. Peevey's letter explained why:
...after redaction there were no segregable parts to offer a coherent document to review.
In other words, so much of the document was censored that it became an incomprehensible piece of Swiss cheese.
Peevey's letter explained why USAID withheld the name of the organization and employees carrying out the program:
The ongoing security risks of threats, intimidation, harassment and/or violence form the basis of why USAID withheld the name of the organization and employee names in the documents. These actions have occurred in the past in Cuba and are of great concern. USAID does not want to jeopardize the safety of those organizations or individuals that work with the agency...
The letter said:
This constitutes USAID's final decision in the matter. Pursuant to 5 U.S.C. §552(a)(4)(B), you are entitled to seek judicial review of this decision in the appropriate United States District Court.
Two points:
  • Many democracy-promotion strategies are made public so that more people can use them. Example: Gene Sharp's "From Dictatorship to Democracy" (download PDF). The Freedom House approach runs contrary to that approach, underscoring the secret nature of the organization's programs in Cuba.
  • Freedom House employees wouldn't be at risk if they weren't carrying out clandestine programs that are considered illegal in Cuba.

1 comment:

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