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Freedom of Information logs shed light on media's military curiosity

John Byrne

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A listing of all requests made of the Pentagon under the Freedom of Information Act since 2000, acquired by RAW STORY, provides new insight into the aggressiveness of American news agencies.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the public can request records of government agencies. Records seen as jeopardizing national security or individual rights are typically exempted. All requests are public.

The request for a list of all who made inquiries of the Pentagon was filed by Michael Petrelis (, a San Francisco-based activist and blogger. He provided a copy to RAW STORY, which will be released in full next week.


The Pentagon’s records reveal that the law is broadly used—more than 10,000 requests have been made since 2000. But they also illuminate a seeming dearth of curiosity by news organizations about the internal files of the U.S. military establishment.

This lack of curiosity appears particularly evident among the nation’s three largest newspapers.

In total, the three papers with daily circulations greater than one million--USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- made just 36 requests of the Pentagon between 2000 and February 2005. USA Today made nine; the Journal, six; and the Times, 21.

The Associated Press, the nation’s most widely used wire service, made 73 requests. Two other AP reporters made a handful of requests not identified by their employer.

Leading print newspapers was the Los Angeles Times, with 42 inquiries. The Times recently ditched its national edition and announced last week it would lay off 85 newsroom staffers. Following the LA Times was the Washington Post, with 34—just shy of the total requests made by the three largest U.S. newspapers combined.

The largest television networks made slightly fewer requests than the top print outlets.

CBS News led the pack with 32 queries; Fox News followed with 22; and NBC News just was shy of that with 21. Fox—a frequent target of the left—filed more requests than the New York Times. CNN, the most-watched 24 hour news channel, made just 11 inquiries.

What they requested

The New York Times requested “epidemiology and ecology reports” from Utah, information on Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s holdings, and information for plans on biological attacks on Cuba and mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq.

The Washington Post went after an “ethics agreement” made between Rumsfeld and the Defense Department’s ethics group, Rumsfeld’s travel records, Clinton’s meetings with Indonesian president Suharto, and conversations of erstwhile Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The Los Angeles Times sought information regarding defense contractors, alleged Iraq ties to Al-Qaeda, President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, payroll information for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and Defense Department contracts with public relations firms.

Fox News’ requests included audio and video of U.S. attacks on Iraq, footage on freed Private Jessica Lynch, an accidental bombing by “U.S. A-10 aircraft of British troops,” and reports of civilian casualties in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

CNN mostly went after images and video of U.S. ships and aircraft attacks. A reporter also made a request for all video related to the Sept. 11, 2001 Pentagon attack.

CBS sought information related to Navy Pilot Michael Spiecher, a U.S. pilot killed in the Gulf War, research on a “human brain research lab” involved in “brain fingerprinting,” charge sheets for those accused of prisoner abuse, and material on Jesse Jackon’s travel as a special human rights envoy to Africa.

Other requestors, request areas

The largest individual requestor was the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute and library based at George Washington University.

The Archive filed 895 requests, representing about 8.4 percent of the total, considerably more inquiries than the 20 largest U.S. newspapers and all major television and cable news networks combined.

The group’s spokesperson had left for the Thanksgiving holiday and could not be reached for comment.

A sampling of the group’s requests: records regarding U.S. drug policy in Latin America, declassified atomic energy commission files, information on Indian affairs in the 1960s, reports and briefing papers on an alleged X-ray rocket interceptor program under Reagan, and any information on China’s nuclear program.

Also among top FOIA watchdogs are the American Civil Liberties Union and Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog. Both groups filed more than 50 requests.

The man who FOIAed the FOIAs

Michael Petrelis, who obtained the FOIA logs, said his initial request was tied to former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who left after coming under fire by her own reporters for questionable reporting on weapons of mass destruction and her role in the CIA leak case.

“I requested the Pentagon's FOIA request logs because I believed that former New York Times reporter Judith Miller may have filed FOIA requests, and I was curious to know what she and other New York Times journalists had FOIAed,” Petrelis said. “The best to way to learn about any FOIA requests from either New York Times reporters or other journalists was to simply FOIA the FOIA logs.”

According to the logs, Miller made no FOIA requests of the Pentagon.

He said he was surprised at the speed at which the Pentagon got back to him with the list.

“I expected an acknowledgement letter from the Pentagon and a vague promise to search their files. To my surprise, in less than three weeks after filing my FOIA request, the Pentagon mailed me five years worth of FOIA logs.”

Petrelis cheered the media’s filings and said he hoped news organizations would expand their inquiries.

“It's great that mainstream media outlets are filing hundreds of FOIA requests with the Pentagon every year,” he remarked. “I would ask that reporters not only continue doing so, but that they increase the number of requests.”

RAW STORY will release the complete FOIA logs next week, providing a fuller breakdown of what was requested. This is the first in a series of articles analyzing the requests.

For the purpose of this article, RAW STORY counted the number of times groups came up by name as having made requests. Individuals at these groups may have also made requests without identifying their organizations; for example, this happened a handful of times with the Associated Press. Because of the sheer size of the logs, checking by individual names would be wholly impractical.

Following is a document which includes the requests from many major U.S. media organizations for the period in question, starting in fiscal year 2000 and running through Feb. 2005.


Word document: Listing of media requests

Originally published on Wednesday November 23, 2005


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