Justice e-censorship gaffe sparks controversy
Uncut and unpaste
A government watchdog group Wednesday accused the Justice Department of improperly censoring portions of a key report on internal workplace diversity, after online activists successfully unmasked the blacked-out portions of an electronic copy of the document.
The 186-page report was released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act last week and posted to Justice Department's website in Adobe's "Portable Document File" (PDF) format. But the department blacked out vast portions of the document's text, citing an exemption to FOIA that permits agencies to keep internal policy deliberations private.
The text didn't stay concealed for long. On Tuesday a website called the Memory Hole, dedicated to preserving endangered documents, published a complete version of the report, with the opaque black rectangles that once covered half of it completely removed. Memory Hole publisher Russ Kick won't say how he unmasked it, but experimentation shows that the concealed text could be selected and copied using nothing more than Adobe's free Acrobat Reader. Once copied, the text is easily pasted into another document and read.
It turns out the report began its life as a Microsoft Word document, and whoever was in charge of sanitizing it for public release did so by using Word's highlight tool, with the highlight color set to black, according to an analysis by Tim Sullivan, CEO of activePDF, a maker of server-side PDF tools. The simple and convenient technique would have been perfectly effective had the end product been a printed document, but it was all but useless for an electronic one. "Using Acrobat, I'm actually able to move the black boxes around," says Sullivan. "The text is still there."
In 2000, the ,New York Times made a similar error in publishing on its website a classified CIA file documenting American and British officials' engineering of the 1953 coup that overthrew Iran's elected leadership. Before releasing the document as a PDF file, the paper blacked out the names of Iranians who helped with the plot. But online intelligence archivist John Young published an unsanitized version of the report after discovering that the opaque black lines and boxes concealing the names could easily be removed.
Both cases demonstrate that what you see is not always what you get in electronic documents. Censors could have more effectively eliminated the text by deleting it, rather than painting it over. Additionally, commercial software is available that's designed specifically to help government agencies redact PDF files for release under FOIA and the Privacy Act. Pennsylvania-based Appligent even sells its "Redax" Acrobat plug-in to the Justice Department. "The amazing thing is that there are different divisions in the Department of Justice that are using our software, so it's a little shocking that they would do this in Word," says company president Virginia Gavin.
Denuded of its censorious kludgework, the report -- produced last year by KPMG -- reveals much about the Justice Department's gender and ethnic diversity issues. But, significantly, it also shows that the department is overly aggressive in cutting documents for public release, according to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). On Wednesday FAS wrote a letter to the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General -- the DoJ's internal investigators -- urging a full investigation into officials' "unauthorized withholding of information."
"Too much information was withheld," says FAS's Steven Aftergood. "Information that was purely factual was censored as if it were deliberative...We want agencies to be able to discuss different policy options and to make recommendations outside of a charged political environment, and the deliberative exemption allows them to do that. But the exemption does not apply to factual material."
For example, a section of the text notes, "sexual harassment is not perceived by attorneys to be a problem in the Department, but racial harassment is." That should never have been cut from the public version, says Aftergood. "That's something that ought to be made publicly available."
Much, if not most, of the scores of blacked out pages should have been released under law, Aftergood says. He credits the PDF blunder with exposing a systemic problem in the Justice Department's FOIA compliance, and he hopes an internal review will result in an overhaul of the system. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the matter, and the almost-censored document disappeared from the department's website Wednesday afternoon.
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