Staffers for Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, reviewing drone flight data they'd finally received from the Border Patrol, noticed something weird. Some of the information that the agency withheld in what it provided to Coburn's Homeland Security committee was not redacted when it was given to the activist organization Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly had the scoop on the letter sent by Coburn's office on behalf of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Department of Homeland Security, which manages Customs and Border Patrol, "appears to have chosen to withhold information from Congress which the [Justice Department] — and, we must assume, DHS — has determined was appropriate to share with the American public," it reads in part.
Last year, the EFF received a response to a Freedom of Information Act request that outlined where and when the Border Patrol had used drones to provide aerial surveillance. "EFF received the three years of flight logs, a 2010 “Concept of Operations” report about the Predator program … and other records in response to our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the agency," it wrote.
That's more than Coburn got. "DHS insisted these documents were so sensitive they could not be produced without explicit promises they would be handled with the utmost care," the letter he sent back to the agency read. But, compared to the EFF's 2010 flight log, "my staff has tallied at least 20 instances in which the publicly-released documents appear to contain legible passages which are redacted entirely or in large part" in the committee's version.
"This exercise may be said to demonstrate many things," the letter reads near its conclusion, "but it does not demonstrate efficiency or transparency." Which is, of course, the broader question: the way in which the government assesses what information can be made public and how it then tracks what is and isn't already declassified.
If you're wondering, here's what the EFF found about the Custom and Border Patrol's drone flights:
CBP conducted drone surveillance for law enforcement agencies ranging from the FBI, ICE, the US Marshals, and the Coast Guard to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. These missions ranged from specific drug-related investigations, searches for missing persons, border crossings and fishing violations to general “surveillance imagery” and “aerial reconnaissance” of a given location.
The Wire reported on another aspect of the EFF's FOIA request last summer. Included in what the agency released was the suggestion that, at some point, they'd considered how drones that patrol the border might be armed. Homeland Security later issued a statement saying it wasn't trying to do so.
Update, 6:00 p.m.: Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at the EFF, offered The Wire her thoughts.
I am concerned that Senator Coburn's letter suggests Customs & Border Protection continues to withhold records from EFF -- especially given that agency representatives testified in court-filed documents that CBP had produced all records responsive to our FOIA request. This situation, combined with the recent crash and grounding of CBP's entire Predator drone fleet, further supports the need for greater transparency around CBP's drone flights, especially when those flights are conducted over US soil and include surveillance of US citizens.