Email. We love it, until it burns us. Like when you think you're sending instructions to a coworker on how to whittle down a pesky reporter's request for federal records related to the Washington Navy Yard shooting, and you realize too late that you emailed them to the reporter himself.
Robin Patterson, the Navy's public liaison, oversees the sea service's responses to Freedom of Information Act requests from reporters and private citizens seeking Navy records and data. But part of an email leaked today on social media suggests Patterson took one reporter's request and tried mightily to avoid gathering and releasing much of the info that journalist sought. And Patterson accidentally sent those notes to Scott MacFarlane, the investigative reporter for NBC 4-TV in Washington who made the request.
The subject line of Patterson's email suggests it's "non-9_16_13 specific," and part of the request seeks imagery from "Building 197." September 6, 2013, is the date of the Washington Navy Yard shooting that left 13 of the service's employees and contractors dead; Building 197 is the Navy Yard structure where the massacre took place.
"This request is too broad to tie to the specific event," Patterson wrote in one section, apparently about a request for photographic records of the interior of Building 197. "Josh can help with crafting the language for 'fishing expedition,' or request to [sic] broad." Federal public affairs officers often decline to fulfill broad requests or nonspecific "fishing expeditions" for information, which reporters often need in order to sharpen their requests and investigative areas of focus—a classic reporting Catch-22.
Elsewhere, Patterson appears cool toward the reporter's request for memos:
Recommend that you provide the requester with an estimate, as I can see the search and review, possible redactions, will be very costly. This may encourage the requester to 'narrow the scope.' Again another 'fishing expedition'—just because they are media doesn't mean that the memos would shed light on specific government activities.
Releasers often quote FOIA requesters high costs for the collection and distribution of information in a way that seems designed less to defray taxpayer expenses and more to dissuade requesters from obtaining the records they want in the first place.
On a final request, apparently for emails, Patterson wrote, "this one is specific enough that we may be able to deny." That's another dilemma for reporters, whose requests for records can be denied for being too narrow as well as too broad.
MacFarlane first reported the email on Twitter earlier today. Understandably, he declined to share additional details with Gawker about the email until he files his own story.
The Navy's Public Affairs Office told Gawker in an email that it "is not authorized to make any statement on the veracity of alleged [Navy] products which have not been disclosed through official channels." Patterson (who is a woman, contrary to Reason magazine's report on the email) did not respond to an emailed request for comment in time for publication.
Gawker tried several times to call her office line, but it was busy. Awfully busy.
Update: The Navy has apologized to MacFarlane in writing and via Twitter: