Redaction redux

QUESTION: What you can do when long-awaited government documents land with more blacked out parts than real content?

Answer by Andrew McIntosh

For a beat or investigative reporter in need of some serious paper to confirm a story about government waste, mismanagement or fraud, there is possibly nothing more frustrating.

After waiting months for sleepy officialdom to process and answer a freedom of information request, you get the call from the ATI or FOIA coordinator, who cheerily says your documents are ready for pick-up or are on their way via courier.

Yet when the package arrives and you rip it open, your hopes are instantly dashed. The documents have come back with so many blacked-out sections and redactions that they could easily be mistaken for papers that got jammed in a copy shop printer.
Too many reporters give up at this point and toss the documents in the bin, spike their story and move right on. Bad idea, if only because that’s what officialdom wants you to do. In my experience, there is much that a reporter and his/her editor can do to get the documents or the information needed to nail down the story. 

When this happens, treat it like a challenging crossword, a journalistic Soduku, and be more persistent, clever and creative — all at once. 

Here are 10 strategies that have worked for me and others — in journalism and other related worlds — over the years when we get redacted to death. Some are obvious, others not. Used collectively, they often help me get results.

1. APPEAL: I appeal every redaction, big or small, as a matter of principle. This can take months. If it’s a good story, the wait will be worth it.

2. ANALYZE: Very carefully analyze what was disclosed and what wasn’t for clues and hints about what might be missing from the document or part of document you’ve been denied. Use your sources, if available, to help you fill in the missing gaps. You may not get what you sought, but officials may instead tell you obliquely, citing some obscure section of the act, that a police or auditor general’s probe is underway, often not in so many words.

3. REQUEST HELP: Sometimes, a FOIA or ATI coordinator can be very helpful.  They are the gatekeepers. They see all the documents and most requests. Sometimes, the sum total of a confidential document or report can be found in pieces or parts of other non-confidential or unclassified documents that you may not have asked for directly, but that were released to another person. Ask the coordinator if there is another document with the same or partial information which you could request. I’ve been  pleasantly surprised using this strategy.

4. BUILD A CHRONOLOGY: Construct a timeline, using confirmed facts you already have, add the NEW facts or dates in the documents just disclosed to you and add what you know to be true from other interviews and sources. You’ll be amazed what you learn when you pile a fact on top of another. The missing bit will sometimes jump off the page/computer screen at you.  

Something even better can happen. While I researched a story about a deadly highway intersection, I found that a provincial transportation department safety engineer wrote a memo recommending a safety study be done about the intersection after a dozen people had been killed in accidents. I looked for the study among records released to me — some 3,000 pages — over and over again. It wasn’t there. AHA!, I figured, they’re hiding it, hoping I wouldn’t notice it in the mountain of documents. I was certain that somebody deep-sixed the study to save the department and government involved embarrassment. The truth was much simpler — and more embarrassing. The study was never done, due to a petty bureaucratic dispute over who would do it and whose budget would pay for it.

5. HIT SEVERAL DEPARTMENTS OR GOVERNMENTS FOR THE SAME DOCUMENT:  The same version of a document often gets sent to several or even dozens of people, departments or agencies. I’ve asked three or four departments, even different governments, for documents about the same grant or loan or job creation project or issue and been amazed at my success. Different versions of the document are also created over time. One department exempted one document, while another released a complete or more complete version, written sometime later. Stitch the two or more sets or versions together — and BLING!! — you have everything you need.

6. DON’T TAKE NO FOR AN ANSWER: If you wanted a certain document, but dared not ask for it directly, and it wasn’t among what was released to you, then re-file and reframe the request, make it broader or narrower. Extend the period covered by the request or shorten it. I’ve seen savvy lobbyists in Ottawa and other provincial capitals do this with great success — using dozens of different requests. In bigger departments, different ATI or FOIA coordinators will handle different requests as they ARRIVE. Each brings a different perspective to his or her decision-making. 

I have had contacts with several lobbyists who use this trick when working to get, for their clients, highly sensitive ministerial briefing notes prepared by deputy ministers, documents about government spending plans or even their rivals’ contracts. They send several requests to several departments and slowly piece together different versions of the same memo or report or study disclosed over time — until they get more than 90% or 100% of it, usually between eight weeks and six months later!

7.  USE INTERMEDIARIES & AVOID SETTING OFF ALARM BELLS: If the mere act of filing an ATI or FOIA request with your name on it about a high-profile project or grant, contract or program triggers alarm bells inside the government and a quick rejection because they know you’re a reporter, use a friend not in the media to file a new request for you — a week or two or a month later. 

8. HIDE YOUR NEEDLE IN THE HAYSTACK: If you’re investigating one contract, one lease deal or one sale of a used car to a friend of the bureaucrat who oversees those deals, don’t ask for all documents about that deal alone and give his or her department a heads up and a chance to heavily redact it. Instead, ask for all surplus auto sales made or leases signed in a month, six months or a year, not only the one you’re interested in. You’ll appreciate the extra material for comparative purposes later — and you’ll keep them guessing about what you’re looking for.

9. HUFF AND BLUFF: As a last resort, call people and play a good old-fashioned hand of bullshit poker. Tell them you HAVE the memo they wrote last year or last month (not untrue, even if it’s 50% redacted) and you need to understand what they meant or were recommending when they wrote it. Typically, they won’t know what you’ve been given and what’s been redacted. Ask the author of the memo or report what they can tell you about it, just like interviewing technique giant John Sawatsky urges. I’ve used this several times, always ending up surprised by how much the ensuing exchanges fill-in knowledge gaps caused by heavy redactions.

10. SHAKE THE TREE, THE FRUITS WILL FALL: Tell everybody inside a department you’re scrutinizing that you’re looking for a certain memo and that its contents were heavily redacted or your request for it was arbitrarily denied. Appeal to their consciences. Ask them if they can help, even if only to read it to you over the phone as you type its text into your machine. Tell people you’ll take a brown envelope. Give them your fax number and office address…. This has worked well for me several times… and I have been overjoyed when a fax or brown envelope arrived a few weeks later.

See also Access-to-information strategies.

Andrew McIntosh is an Assistant City Editor, Investigations, at The Sacramento Bee. During his 23-year journalism career, he has filed thousands of federal (Canada and U.S.), provincial and municipal Access to Information requests while writing for The National Post, The Globe and Mail and The Ottawa Citizen. You can reach him at