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Air Force, Guard document rule may violate law

Nov. 23, 2012 - 10:39AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 23, 2012 - 10:39AM  |  
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The Air Force has set an information release policy that appears to violate federal law, and the National Guard may have followed suit.

The directive, which restricts how documents can be made public, runs counter to the practices of other branches of the military, as well as the Defense Department itself.

The policy requires that "all documents" released publicly be converted to a PDF format or an image-based file format that similarly limits the ways it can be used electronically.

Analyzing large or complex data files is difficult to impossible when they are in such a format.

Federal law requires government officials to typically release information in the format requested by those filing FOIA requests.

The law reads: "In making any record available to a person under this paragraph, an agency shall provide the record in any form or format requested by the person if the record is readily reproducible by the agency in that form or format."

The new Air Force policy "seems exceedingly broad, and is, on its face, in violation of FOIA," the Freedom of Information Act, said Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

DoD spokesman David Oten echoed that view when asked about the apparent conflict.

"As you correctly point out, this could be contradictory to the [Freedom of Information] Act itself," Oten said in an email.

Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, did not address questions about the policy's legality but said in an email that its purpose is to make sure that information that Air Force officials change or delete in a document prior to its release can't be viewed later.

"The Air Force issued the policy to ensure that only the ‘final version' of a document is released," she said.

Stefanek added that the directive, established in a February memo, is now under review.

National Guard officials did not answer questions about how widely they apply the directive, why it was put in place or whether they believe it to be legal. Guard spokeswoman Rose Richeson largely directed questions to the Air Force.

Richeson noted that the law applies only to requests made formally though the FOIA process.

"The code does not require public affairs to use a specific format for documents meant for public release, nor does it state that [Public Affairs] will provide information in the format a requester prefers," she said in an email.

Richeson did not say whether the National Guard applies the directive to formal FOIA requests as well as informal requests for information.

Stefanek said the Air Force applies the policy to both types of requests. It also applies to documents that are partially classified or redacted, as well as those that carry no such restrictions, she said.

The Guard has not established the format policy in an official memo, but it "is now our standard operating procedure," Richeson said.

Army and Marine Corps officials said their services have no such policy.

In response to Military Times questions, Navy officials provided a copy of the service's 113-page FOIA guidelines. "PDF" does not appear in the document, which echoes federal law in mandating that Navy officials "shall provide the record in any form or format requested by the requester, if the record is readily reproducible in that form or format."

The Pentagon said the same. "There is no DoD FOIA policy saying that all FOIA releasable documents must be in PDF format," Oten said in an email.

Stefanek did indicate that Air Force officials are reviewing its policy "to decide if they need to make any adjustments."

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