Plenty of work remains to fulfill promise of transparency laws, says National Security Archive’s Tom Blanton

By Alejandro Martínez

It’s been almost 40 years since Tom Blanton filed his first public information request. Since then, Blanton, the current director of the nonprofit National Security Archive, has become a leading authority in access to information and been directly involved in the release of tens of thousands of documents declassified by the U.S. government.

Many countries around the world have enacted their own right-to-information laws in the last several years, but during the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ 11th Austin Forum, which this year focused on the topics of transparency and accountability, Blanton said plenty of work remains to be done to ensure these laws live up to their promises.

Blanton listed five challenges that journalists and transparency advocates face today: finding sustainable sources of income that help fund journalistic projects in the long run, ensuring the safety of whistleblowers, going after multinational corporations and holding them accountable, helping expand the open data movement, and making sure that access-to-information laws work.

Considering that it can take months or years for officials to respond to public information requests, Blanton said that the only effective strategy is to file several at the same time and wait for them to come back – and that requires time, patience and a publication that will endure the wait.

Blanton mentioned as an example the Archive’s work releasing thousands of documents that have helped shed light on the crimes against humanity committed during the Guatemalan civil war and have served as evidence in courts. It’s been 21 years since their first FOIA on the topic was filed, Blanton said.

“That’s what it takes, that’s real investigation,” he said. “But it required me as a fundraiser to raise the money to keep (Archive senior analyst) Kate Doyle working. That’s the kind of commitment it takes.”

The question then, is one of sustainability. At the Archive, Blanton said their solution has been to diversify their sources of income. The Archive, for example, works with around 300 university libraries to supply them with curated collections of their work.

Another challenge is shedding light on the activities of multinational corporations, which are often difficult to penetrate.

Blanton suggested filing public information requests with regulatory agencies to learn information about corporations obtained by governments. As an example, Blanton mentioned the 5,000 internal corporate documents the Archive obtained on Chiquita Banana’s operations in Colombia through the U.S. Department of Justice.

Speaking about the open data movement, Blanton said that the challenge is achieving the conditions that, using freedom of information laws, allow journalists and citizens to obtain the information they want – not just the one that governments want to release.

Blanton suggested starting by creating a list of the public information that should always be available to the public.

‘We as a larger community need a core list of what we need to know, what he have a right to know, and make partnerships to create an ‘openness floor’ below which the government should never fall,” he said.

Finally, Blanton said journalists and organizations must continue pressing authorities to ensure transparency laws work as they should.

In the United States, the law “works and doesn’t work at the same time,” he said, referring to the long periods of time it can take for certain information request to receive a reply. Blanton mentioned as an example that it took the CIA 15 years to reply to their request for the 693-page file on the agencies illegal activities between the 1950s and 1970s known as the "Family Jewels."

A recent audit by the Archive also found that public institutions in the United States are slow to implement changes in public information policy. According to the report, 52 out of 100 federal agencies have not updated their FOIA practices since the law was updated in 2007, and 59 have ignored new regulations rolled out by the Obama administration.

Blandon concluded by highlighting again the importance of regularly filing several FOIA requests as a strategy to produce constant stories using the tool and make the wait less burdensome. His recommendation: do FOIA Fridays.

“If you do that every Friday, next year you’ll have several come back,” he said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.