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OGIS Case Study: A Ray of Light

Four years after making a FOIA request, Tom Tangen was in the dark – portions of his July 2008 FOIA request seeking access to classified information about American rifle grenades used in World War II and the Korean War seemed to have disappeared into a black hole. He’d filed a FOIA request with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hoping to get the records declassified.

Mr. Tangen had received some records, but neither he, nor David Fort, deputy director of NARA’s FOIA/MDR Division, had any luck tracking down 195 pages sent to two Department of Defense (DoD) components: Office of the Secretary of Defense-Joint Chiefs of Staff (OSD/JS) and the Department of the Army.

OGIS contacted Stephanie Carr, DoD’s FOIA Public Liaison, whose sleuthing led to the needle in the haystack: an Army arsenal about 35 northwest of New York City. A FOIA professional at the Picatinny Arsenal in northern New Jersey had no idea the classified records that Mr. Tangen sought access to were tucked in a safe in her office.

She and her colleagues quickly reviewed the documents and determined that although they no longer contained DoD- or Army-classified information, they did contain some foreign government information of possible interest to the State Department. David Fort showed the documents to State Department reviewers at the Archives, and they had no objection to release, so the records were declassified.

Mr. Tangen visited the Archives to review the material, which he plans to compile, along with the other information he’s gathered, for reference by other interested enthusiasts. The case highlights the importance of FOIA Public Liaisons to OGIS’s work as well as best practices for the referral and consultation process. While many best practices were followed in this case, it illustrates that one missing piece can derail the referral and consultation process for both requesters and agencies.