In 2001, the Pentagon produced a strange training video, for internal use and at a cost of more than $70,000, designed to teach civilian and military employees how the Freedom of Information Act works. It was comically dumb, featuring a noir private detective in a hack Humphrey Bogart accent navigating a World War II-era spy scenario, occasionally looking to the camera and delivering FOIA-based tips. When researchers tried to obtain a copy under the FOIA itself, the Pentagon took 18 months to release it, and redacted portions. Here it is.
As far as I can tell, it hasn't been posted on the internet until now. But "The People's Right to Know" was so bizarre that it merited an Associated Press story in 2004, when it was first released. Aside from the silly, and ultimately trivializing, "spy" narrative, the AP took issue with the fact that the Pentagon redacted a video it uses to train people how to process FOIA requests when someone sought access to it via a FOIA request. The Pentagon protested that it had to black out certain copyrighted portions—snippets of film derived from other sources—despite the fact that the FOIA doesn't expressly permit the government to withhold copyrighted material.
Legal experts challenged the Pentagon's refusal to release the entire video, arguing it was improper under the Freedom of Information Act — the subject of the videotape itself — for the government to withhold records because they include copyrighted material.
The video lists reasons for withholding government documents under U.S. law but does not mention copyright. It cites seven categories of information that can be withheld, including classified documents and "trade secrets and commercial and financial information given by companies in their bids for contracts."
"This makes no sense; this is silly," said David Schulz, a First Amendment lawyer in New York who has represented the Associated Press. "This is a novel effort to apply a provision that clearly has no proper application here."
I received a VHS copy of "The People's Right to Know" recently from a friend, who had originally obtained it from FOIA researcher and cultural anthropologist Michael Powell. I reached out to Powell to ask him his thoughts on the film, which are reproduced below.
Inadvertently, training films like this contribute to a heightened culture of secrecy and paranoia inside the government bureaucracy. While the film nominally attempts to make the education of FOIA fun and entertaining, the way it's framed—and of course, the attempt to create an air of mystery is, by any decent entertainment standards, a complete failure—only helps reproduce this sense that government secrecy is not only important and necessary, but that the division between "what we know" and "what they know" is of the utmost importance. The result, if anyone inside the bureaucracy ever bothered to watch this film, is to create more paranoia around government information. But even if no one watched this, I think it's just one more clue of how the government approaches these matters.
I wrote a lot more about the unintended and unforeseen consequences of attempts by the government to keep things secret in this article I wrote for The Believer a few years back (much of these insights and stories were collected while I was doing ethnographic fieldwork, first in the US and then in Poland, on information access and FOI laws, the subject of my PhD dissertation in cultural anthropology at Rice University). It's about black marker redaction. In that case, the government thought they were actually destroying information that was redacted. The consequence, however, was to generate paranoia, especially in the public sphere. That cultural production of paranoia is also happening here, with this video.
Pop culture is rife with this kind of stuff, but it's been so common for so long that I think we've lost all sensitivity to the paranoia surrounding any government information flows. Recent cases of Snowden, the NSA or even Assange and WikiLeaks are further cases in point.