Case Study in Clarity

We play a valuable role in facilitating communications between a requester and an agency. A recent request made by National Public Radio (NPR) to the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) provides an example of this function.

NPR reporter Caitlin Dickerson made a request to the NRL for records about a World War II-era medical experiment that used human subjects; the agency released the records in full. While Ms. Dickerson was mostly pleased with the agency’s release, the records included a number of photographs which, when reproduced, were blurry. NPR contacted the agency, asking that the images be re-scanned at a higher resolution; the NRL scanned the images again and released the second set. Unfortunately, this second set of images, while better than the first, were still not of a high-enough resolution to be useful to NPR. Ms. Dickerson contacted the agency again, but the NRL, having produced two sets of records at that point, thought that they had fulfilled the FOIA request in accordance with the law and closed the request.

At this point, NPR contacted OGIS to see if this dispute could be resolved outside of the administrative appeal process. NPR asked us to inquire whether someone from the organization could bring NPR’s own equipment to the agency in order to scan the images at the resolution she needed. We contacted the agency to discuss this offer; the NRL declined, citing security regulations at the facility in which the records were held.

Medical Experiment

While we often encourage agencies to resolve complex FOIA issues by drawing on the knowledge of other departments (for instance, enlisting the assistance of the agency’s information technology professionals with requests for database records), in this instance, the requester took the same approach. NPR discussed the matter internally, drawing on the expertise of NPR’s photo editor, NRL agreed to scan the pictures again using NPR’s recommended settings, and we facilitated this exchange of information. The agency made the necessary adjustments and released a third set of records that met the NPR’s needs.

While we primarily work with FOIA disputes at the conclusion of the FOIA process—after the agency has reviewed its actions and decisions on appeal—in this instance, an earlier intervention on a relatively simple matter helped the requester get the records she needed faster, and kept an appeal out of the agency’s backlog. The result was two news stories ( and that illuminate a fascinating aspect of American military history, punctuated by photographs that make the stories that much more compelling.

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