The Obama administration is blocking The Washington Times from obtaining detailed information about Syria’s extensive chemical weapons arsenal, which was used to kill thousands of innocents and changed the course of the country’s savage 4-year-old civil war.
Critics within advocacy groups, and within the journalism establishment, have lambasted the administration for its slow, or lack of, responses to Freedom of Information Act requests. Yet in 2009, President Obama pledged to run the most transparent administration in U.S. history and told FOIA administrators to err on the side of releasing data.
The Times has been turned down in its requests under FOIA with the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The agency led the Obama administration’s mission, along with international groups, to remove and destroy Syria’s stocks of ricin, sarin, mustard gas, hydrochloric acid and other components in 2014. It compiled extensive intelligence on what was one of the world’s largest stockpiles.
The Times is interested in the history of Syria’s elaborate chemical weapons industry. It wants to know the role of any third parties, such as rogue scientists or other countries, in producing and/or acquiring chemical weapons components and weaponizing them in bombs and artillery shells.
Iran, for example, has been reported in various news accounts of having some role. The U.S. and Iran now are executing an unsigned agreement to block Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Already, Iran seems to have violated U.N. resolutions barring tests of ballistic missiles.
The Times first asked the Pentagon to provide detailed information on what components were removed. The Pentagon referred questions to the U.N.-supported Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which launched a joint mission to oversee the Syria operation.
The Times asked the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for information about the history of the arsenal. A spokesman replied that as a matter of practice it does not provide such details. The organization did post on its website a series of “progress reports” as the removal proceeded.
The Times’ first FOIA request to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency asked for any and all information it possessed stemming from its removal work. The request was denied as being too general.
The Times first said it was “requesting all documents related to the Defense Department’s collection and disposal of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. The Times is interested in an inventory of each component and its origins. A list of each component, the size or number, and from where they came, either domestically produced inside Syria or imported from another country, if from another country.”
After being told the request was too broad, The Times narrowed it to this: “The Washington Times is asking the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to provide any reports — created by DTRA’s team in charge of disposing of Syria’s chemical weapons components and submitted to DTRA headquarters — that contain information on the components handled and their origin, be it Syria or from a third party or country to Syria. I assume DTRA’s team must have filed reports on its mission, to include the types and amounts of chemical weapons components removed from Syria.”
The agency again responded with a denial. But this time, it acknowledged it had some applicable information. It cited a U.S. law that allows it to withhold “certain sensitive information of foreign governments and international organizations.”
“The responsive record is exempt from mandatory public disclosure, and is being withheld in full accordance with” U.S. law, said the agency’s Oct. 9 “final” denial letter.
The Times appealed, saying the Defense Threat Reduction Agency can redact the reports and then release them, as is done with many other classified documents. That appeal is pending.
‘Lack of transparency’
The law cited by DTRA has three prongs, any of which is justification for denial.
One is that a foreign government or organization requests in writing that data be withheld. The second is that the information is supplied on the condition that it not be released. The third is that a release would make it difficult for the U.S. to obtain similar information in the future.
David A. Schulz is a FOIA warrior. He co-directs Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, which goes to court to challenge government denials.
Mr. Schulz, a First Amendment specialist who has represented a number of news media outlets, told The Times that he has never seen the government invoke this law before in a FOIA denial.
“On the face of it, it seems that their position on the statute is not crazy,” Mr. Schulz said. “The other angle to it is, it’s a discretionary authorization so it is not mandatory. If they wanted to, they could still disclose even if it fell squarely within this. It’s another example of the lack of transparency there. They are hiding beyond this statute, but they are not required to keep it secret and it goes against their claim of being transparent.”
Tom Fitton runs Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit that has gone to court to force the Obama administration to provide documents, such as Hillary Clinton’s stash of private emails while secretary of state.
“On classified material, it is tough to overcome the withholdings,” Mr. Fitton said. “Of course, they can always declassify material. In my experience, typically material like this is withheld because it is not helpful, as opposed to it would harm the nation’s security or harm foreign relations. If this material were helpful, if the administration is Democrat or Republican, they will often release it.
“My view is, where is the harm in getting the type of information you want?” he said. “What weapons Syria had and where they might have come from, I think, is relevant to the current debate.”
Karen Kaiser, the Associated Press’ general counsel, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in May of maddeningly long delays by this administration in trying to obtain basic information.
“Obtaining documents through FOIA remains a slow and difficult process, and one which unfortunately is becoming increasingly arduous to use,” she said. “Despite promises of greater transparency at the outset of this administration, most agencies are not abiding by their obligations of openness under the law. We are witnessing a breakdown in the system — both on the procedural front, in the form of continual delays and agency nonresponsiveness, and on the substantive front, with the vast overuse of exemptions and redactions.”
Ms. Kaiser said the Obama administration cited national security and privacy (the issue faced in The Washington Times case) a record 555,000 times last year.
“This administration started in 2009 with a promise to be the most transparent administration ever,” she said. “Yet these statistics speak to the opposite result.”
Questions about mission persist
In August 2012, Mr. Obama declared a “red line” that Syrian President Bashar Assad must not cross by using chemical weapons.
The warning of severe consequences did not stop the Assad regime. In the summer of 2013, the United Nations confirmed the widespread use of such weapons for mass killings of men, women and children as the regime was losing ground to various rebel groups.
Horrific photos emerged of the dead. The U.S. positioned warships off the Syrian coast for an air assault to attempt to destroy Mr. Assad’s military infrastructure.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry then announced that airstrikes could be put on hold if the regime agreed to get rid of its entire chemical arsenal. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened to urge Syria to do so.
An agreement was reached with Syria, completing one of the most significant wartime trades: Syria gave up its weapons of mass destruction in exchange for the U.S. leaving Mr. Assad’s military intact — or at least not bombed by the Americans.
Yet it did not stop Mr. Assad’s carnage. He has continued to bomb civilians, unleashing in some cases crude indiscriminate “barrel bombs.” The death toll in Syria is more than 250,000.
That fall and into 2014, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons began its work. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency joined in and positioned a ship, the USS Cape Ray, off the Syrian coast to receive components for weapons such as mustard gas and destroy them using a technology known as hydrolysis. Other substances were sent to Finland, Germany and Britain for destruction.
The agency issued a press release in August 2014 hailing its work.
“DTRA has been involved in the efforts to deal with the Syrian chemicals specifically — planning and synchronizing the evaluation of the threats, the options for destroying them, and ultimately the project that came to be the Cape Ray,” the release said. “Onboard the modified Cape Ray, a team of chemists and engineers accomplished their work in international waters on the Mediterranean Sea. They processed approximately 600 tons of chemical weapon materials that included mustard gas and components for the nerve agent sarin.”
The previous April, DTRA Director Kenneth A. Myers III told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his agency had compiled extensive knowledge on Syria.
Beginning in 2011, as the civil war broke out and worries about Syria’s chemical weapons arose, Mr. Myers said: “DTRA’s planners and intelligence officers worked closely with [U.S. Central Command] to evaluate the WMD threats and options for the destruction of these weapons and materials.”
He added: “The Syrian chemical attacks on 21 August 2013 were a turning point for the international community. DTRA planners provided technical expertise to Department of State and White House-led diplomatic efforts at every step, including the seminal meetings between Secretary Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov in Geneva.”
The website of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says 1,200 tons of various components and chemicals were destroyed, but it does not appear to break down that number into each type of substance or types of weapons.
Did the organization get them all?
Some analysts are suspicious, given that Syria on several occasions declared new storage and production sites months after it said it had made a full declaration.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons declared its Syria mission over in September 2014. But still on its joint OPCW-U.N. website is the statement, “The OPCW mission in Syria will continue to deal with the destruction of chemical weapon production facilities and clarification of certain aspects of the Syrian initial declaration.”