Secrecy: FOIA

Closing the Book on Spanberger’s SF-86

By Evan Kielar, Scott R. Anderson
Monday, May 13, 2019, 5:25 PM

Last year, one of us filed a “meta-FOIA” request with Benjamin Wittes seeking information on how former CIA officer and then-congressional candidate (now congresswoman) Abigail Spanberger’s unredacted SF-86 form was released in response to a right-wing advocacy group’s FOIA request. We petitioned both the National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA) and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), each of which had played a role in the release.

The NARA responded first, providing us documents that confirmed that it had transferred the incoming request to the USPS, which had collected and retained the SF-86 in the course of Spanberger’s application for a position as a postal service investigator. But now we’ve heard back from the USPS as well.

In response to our request, the USPS provided us with more than 400 pages of responsive records, divided into two tranches: one covering FOIA requests regarding Spanberger, including requests regarding how the USPS processed the request that led to the disclosure of the SF-86; and the second covering internal discussions regarding that initial FOIA request and the response to it. The USPS applied the deliberative process and other FOIA exemptions—as well as separate statutory exemptions specific to the USPS—generously throughout, making it sometimes difficult to determine what exactly was being discussed. That said, the documents nonetheless shed some additional light on what transpired.

The USPS has indicated that the release of Spanberger’s SF-86 was simply an “unfortunate error” triggered by a misunderstanding on the part of USPS personnel, who provided a response as if Spanberger herself were requesting the documents. The documents we received do show that USPS personnel responded to the FOIA request on July 30, under a cover letter indicating that they were providing the entirety of Spanberger’s Official Personnel Folder (OPF), which presumably included the unredacted SF-86. (The actual documents provided in response were not included.) More senior USPS FOIA officials then started asking about the request and what documents were provided in response on August 28, in apparent response to a sudden wave of media and congressional inquiries about the disclosure of the SF-86. Aside from this, the documents are mostly correspondence with media groups and other requesters seeking information on the disclosure and internal e-mail correspondence in which USPS personnel trade copies of and excerpts from relevant media stories.

Almost all of the internal discussion regarding the disclosures is redacted, sometimes on grounds that seem questionable given the context. And we did not receive the Vaughn index documenting and justifying any redactions and withheld documents that we had requested. Nonetheless, what we can see of the documents shows a confused bureaucracy trying to explain and handle the media attention from an apparent mistake by one of its peers—more or less the account the USPS has put forward. This may be a boring end to a story involving a CIA officer, a heated political race and partisan skullduggery—but, in many ways, it’s also the least disturbing.

Below are both of the disclosures that Lawfare received. We don’t expect to receive any further productions in this matter. That said, if we do receive more documents—or find that there is reason to reopen the book on the Spanberger SF-86—we will, of course, keep Lawfare readers fully informed.

OPF Breach FOIA Requests

OPF FOIA Records